WASHINGTON — “Past actions predict future results,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, in a hearing about the Obama administration’s recent efforts to “normalize relations” with Cuba.
On February 26, 2015, a day before the Obama administration would begin its second round of talks with Cuba, the Subcommittee held a hearing to determine how the negotiations would affect U.S. efforts to protect U.S. interests, advance human rights and aid the Cuban people.
To this hearing, the Subcommittee invited Fernando Menéndez from the Society for a Secure Free Society, Dr. José Azel from the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, Dennis K. Hays from the Emergence Group and Chris Simmons, a former Counterintelligence Officer with the U.S Army.
In attendance were Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), Rep. Duncan (R-SC), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) and Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-TX).
As Rep. Duncan’s quote indicates, the hearing revolved around one central issue: history. How must the U.S. interpret its past interactions with Cuba? How would the negotiations affect the U.S.’s long-term interests? What prospects would the Cuban people have after the negotiations have been finalized?
Cuba: A “Totalitarian Regime”
To most of the Subcommittee members and the speakers, Cuba’s actions had shown it to be a “clear and present threat” and a “totalitarian regime.” They highlighted Cuba’s elaborate espionage system, status as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” and deplorable human rights record, for which the State Department had designated Cuba a Tier 3 country known to be a source “for adults and children subjected to sex trafficking.”
For the current series of talks, Cuba had Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, its director of North American Affairs, lead its delegation in the negotiations. In 2003, Vidal and her husband had been expelled from the U.S. for being Cuban spies.
Based on this history with Cuba, they felt comfortable equating easing some restrictions on trade and travel with “gratuitous normalization” that would remove any incentive for Cuba to make significant policy changes.
They claimed that Cuba would instead be emboldened to make outrageous demands. Azel cited Cuban President Raúl Castro’s claims as evidence: unconditionally eliminating all economic sanctions, stopping all transitions of Radio-TV Martí,[i] giving the Cuban government $116 billion as compensation for the negative effects of the embargo, removing Cuba from the U.S.’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List and returning the Guantanamo Bay naval base to Cuba.
Though the Subcommittee found all the demands preposterous, the latter two were the most controversial.
Rep. DeSantis asserted that Cuba had done “absolutely nothing” to deserve any concessions, especially because it had aligned itself with Venezuela and Russia. Building on Rep. DeSantis’ claims, Rep. Yoho repeated Menéndez’s claim that there were 40,000 to 50,000[ii] Cubans in Venezuela, some of whom were soldiers working with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. He then tried to connect Cuba, Venezuela and Hezbollah with the allegation[iii] that Hezbollah had been obtaining passports in Venezuela.
Regarding Guantanamo Bay, the Subcommittee feared Cuba would then lease Guantanamo to either Russia or China, giving either recipient a port near the U.S. Their concerns were not allayed by news that Russia and Cuba were attempting to re-open a Soviet-era spy base in Lourdes, Cuba.
In light of these details, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen concluded that the Obama administration’s possible concessions to Cuba would constitute a “real national security threat.” Azel agreed, saying that such concessions would be an “implicit seal of approval of a military dictatorship.” Likewise, Simmons dismissed the thought of a benign Cuba as a “fairy tale.”
Failure of Current U.S.-Cuba Policy
In opposition to most of the Subcommittee members and speakers, Rep. Meeks and Rep. Castro argued that the lack of progress in U.S.-Cuba relations was proof that the current U.S.-Cuba policy was ineffective.
Rep. Meeks argued that it would be pointless to expect the current policy to work in the near future when it had not worked for more than 50 years. Instead, Rep. Meeks encouraged “collectiv[e]” action with other countries to promote meaningful reforms in Cuba.
Additionally, Rep. Meeks noted that it would be hypocritical to refuse negotiations with Cuba when the U.S. already has embassies in China and Russia, both of which have engaged in actions detrimental to U.S. interests and to their own citizens.
Furthermore, Rep. Meeks tried to shift the focus of the debate from Cuba to the new generation of Cubans. “They [the Cuban people] want the policy to change,” said Rep. Meeks, recalling the conversations he had had with young Cubans during a trip to Cuba. He hoped that continued negotiations would allow the U.S. to reach those who would become Cuba’s future leaders.
Agreeing with Rep. Meeks, Rep. Castro proposed that the U.S. use the negotiations to prepare itself for a Cuba finally free from Castro family rule. The U.S. would be “behind the eight ball,” said Rep. Castro, because then it would not have established a rapport with which it could stave off possible attempts from China to court this new Cuba. To assuage his detractors, Rep. Castro assured them that the U.S. would not lift the embargo until after the Castro regime was out of power.
Possible Effects of Loosening Restrictions
Though most of the Subcommittee members and the speakers conceded that Cuba had been making policy changes, they questioned these changes’s positive effects.
Upon hearing Rep. Meeks’ claim that the lack of progress in U.S.-Cuba relations is the result of a failure in current U.S.-Cuban policy, Menéndez and Rep. DeSantis blamed the failure on Cuba: if Cuba could have “normal” relations with other countries such as Canada, but still be the way it is today, then the Cuban government would be entirely to blame for Cuba’s present circumstances.
Menéndez sharply criticized the idea that loosening trade and travel restrictions would lead to “generalized prosperity.” He argued that the resulting revenue from tourism would instead find its way back to the Castro regime via GAVIOTA, a military-owned conglomerate. Downplaying immediate importance of Cuba’s burgeoning private sector, Menéndez brought up the Cuba’s government practice of keeping Cuban workers’ wages at $20/month by taking whatever money would cause them to make more than that amount.
Azel and Simmons posited that the Cuban government would exploit loosened restrictions to harm the U.S. Azel claimed that the Cuban government would able to transport “drugs, contraband goods, or [the victims of]human trafficking” to the U.S. Recognizing that loosened trade restrictions would give Cuba more access to American goods, Simmons feared Cuba’s spy system obtaining “unrestricted access to U.S. technology.”
Though almost on a side of his own, Hays also claimed that, “absent fundamental reform,” private sector revenue would just go to the Castro regime.
Unlike the other speakers, Hays did not claim or imply that the embargo was “intended to promote ‘regime change.’” Instead, Hays argued, the embargo was meant to restrain the Castro regime by “deny[ing]unearned sources that would be used against [Cuba’s] own citizens and neighbors.” The restraint is vital, according to Hays, because the Cuban people lacked the “[sociopolitical]mechanism[s]to express their will” and to push for political and economic reforms.
Without the embargo, claimed Hays, the Cuban government would simply have more resources to sustain itself and branch out into further reprehensible activity.
Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, Cuba is still on its “third Lost Generation,” observed Hays. The clock is ticking on the latest generation of Cubans the world may end up leaving behind.
The U.S.-Cuba negotiations require a mindset able to reconcile conflicting timetables for short-term and long-term goals. At the same time, it must be able to balance the interests of the U.S., the Cuban government and the Cuban people, whom these negotiations will invariably affect the most.
– Dean Delasalas
[i] Radio-TV Martí is a news organization that claims to “disseminate news originating from Cuba and report current world news to all Cubans.”([D]ifunde informaciones originadas de Cuba y reporta el acontecer noticioso mundial para todos los cubanos.)
[ii] In 2013, Diego Arria, former president of the U.N. Security Council, told the Miami-based newspaper El Nuevo Herald that “most of the 60,000 Cubans found in the oil-producing country [of Venezuela]comprise a formidable occupation force that guides the destiny of the nation [of Venezuela]according to the Castro brothers’ interests.” (“[L]os más de 60.000 cubanos que se encuentran en el país petrolero conforman una formidable fuerza de ocupación que conduce los destinos de la nación de acuerdo a los intereses de los hermanos Castro”.)
[iii] Rep. Yoho’s claim possibly originated from the written testimony Roger F. Noriega submitted to the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-Proliferation, and Trade in 2012. The testimony cites the case of an acquaintance of one of the terrorists behind 9/11. The acquaintance had an authentic Venezuelan passport bearing the name “Hakim Mohamed Ali Diab Fattah.”
In his written testimony, Menéndez corroborates Rep. Yoho’s claim by citing a case in which Canada found at least 173 Venezuelan passports issued to people of Middle Eastern descent. The case is in a section of a Center for a Secure Free Society report Menéndez co-authored.
The section draws various connections: first, between Venezuela and Iran, then Venezuela and Cuba through Cuba’s efforts to improve Venezuela’s security systems, then Venezuela to Lebanon through a man named Tareck Zaidan El Aissami Maddah, and finally Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran through cultural exchanges between Iran and the group ALBA, of which Venezuela and Cuba are members.