Cuban Independence Day Speech: What Valenzuela Should Say
Photo Credit: U.S. State Department
May 20th is Cuban Independence Day, or at least it is for some Cubans, as many on the island do not consider May 20, 1902 as the date they gained their true independence because the Platt Amendment gave the United States the authority to intervene in Cuba’s affairs. Nevertheless, to celebrate what they consider Cuban Independence Day, the Cuban American National Foundation will be hosting a $150/ person event in Miami, and the keynote speaker will be none other than Arturo Valenzuela, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
The Obama Administration has issued plenty of statements and answered numerous questions about its Cuba policy in the past year. Most recently, Hillary Clinton made some interesting (and in the words of the Cuban state media “cynical”) comments on Cuba. Similarly, Valenzuela talked about Cuba recently at a House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
However, rather than the odd statement or question in front of Congressmen or reporters, Valenzuela will deliver what is looking to be the Obama Administration’s first major speech on Cuba. Suffice to say it will be a tough crowd, as Valenzuela will be walking into the lion’s den of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, and he can be sure every one of his words will be scrutinized closely by hardliner and pro-engagement advocates alike. So, what should Valenzuela say? What topics should he address (and which should he avoid)? How can he make this speech positive? Here are my thoughts:
Focus on the Positive: This is something Valenzuela has done in the past and is something he is sure to do on May 20th: focus on the areas where the U.S. and Cuba have made progress (albeit minimal) over the past year. Reuniting the Cuban family, restarting migration talks, initiating direct mail service talks, and cooperation on the humanitarian relief effort in Haiti have all been steps in the right direction. Dialogue and cooperation on issues like this will be the basis for future diplomatic progress between the two countries.
Concern, not conditionality: There is no doubt that Valenzuela will discuss several hot button issues, namely the arrest of Alan Gross, the death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and the human rights situation on the island. It is the way in which he will discuss these issues that will make or break his speech. He can project the U.S. concern over these issues in a way that will not undermine cooperation.
It should be common sense by now that the Castros do no respond to direct pressure from the outside. Condemnation and conditionality have done nothing to improve relations or the situation on the island, and instead only receive a strong rebuke back in response. After Hillary Clinton’s highly critical comments at a university Q & A session earlier this month on how the Castros have undermined all U.S. “overtures” and attempts at engagement, Ricardo Alarcon, President of the National Assembly, responded, "If she really thinks that the blockade benefits the Cuban government -- which she wants to undermine -- the solution is very simple: that they lift it even for a year to see whether it is in our interest or theirs.” This type of critical back and forth does not benefit either nation.
Talking a mean game will not advance U.S. interests (although it might please the Miami crowd).
What the U.S. can do: Because waiting for the Castros to change their stripes does neither the U.S. nor Cuba any good (only some in Miami), Valenzuela should look at what the U.S. has control over, namely the U.S. policies that isolate and hurt average Cubans. The small changes made thus far by the Obama Administration, allowing Cuban-American family to travel to Cuba and remittances to once again flow freely, have improved the quality of life for many Cubans. The continued restrictions on broader American travel and agricultural exports to the island limit Cubans’ access to hard currency incomes and high quality, competitively priced food. The issue is whether and how he will address the problem-riddled USAID democracy assistance program and T.V. and Radio Martí, which account for millions in highly-ineffective government spending. Valenzuela will likely shy away from addressing these issues, although they are at the heart of the mistrust between the U.S. and Cuba.
Promote engagement and a way forward: Lay out where the two countries can go from here. Plenty of areas of mutual interest still need to be addressed. Cooperation on law enforcement and drug interdiction is one of the small steps that can help build trust.
Off course, we all have someone to answer to, and that someone is Secretary Clinton (and President Obama) for Valenzuela. Given the hands off approach the Administration has taken regarding Cuba since reducing the restrictions on Cuban-American family travel to the island, it is probably wishful thinking to hope Valenzuela’s speech will offer any breakthroughs. Instead, given that the event is hosted by CANF, and that the recent tensions over hunger strikers, Alan Gross, and the Ladies in White all have drawn harsh statements of criticism from President Obama and Secretary Clinton, hope for a balanced speech focused on improving relations between Americans and Cubans, if not our two governments.