U.S. Restarts Migration, Mail Talks with Cuba

Shortly after the birth of my daughter earlier this spring, a dear friend came from far away to visit.  Naturally, she wanted to know, how are things with Cuba? Surely Obama is changing things, right, she wondered? Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation talking, but I was feeling cranky and pessimistic, and I said, “This issue never moves!” To which she replied – to my horror – “I guess we’ll have to wait for (Fidel) Castro to die.”

It’s not that I harbor any great love for Fidel Castro. It's not about Castro at all, and that's the point. It can be mighty frustrating to have to explain over and over again that waiting isn't a policy, and even if it were, the conflict simply isn't about Fidel Castro anymore. As Republican Senator Mike Enzi likes to say about U.S. Cuba policy, if you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've already got. And yet, waiting is the predominant American viewpoint when it comes to Cuba; nothing can or should change until Fidel goes. But the reality is that the so-called biological solution is no solution at all.

Fidel Castro has been out of power (if not influence) for 7 years now. In order to try to right his sinking ship, Raul Castro has steadily been dismantling many of the economic – and even some political – policies that his older brother either endorsed or neglected.  Does anyone truly believe that anything will change either in Cuba or in the bilateral relationship as a result of his exit from the scene? Surely not; whatever change his exit might have ushered in, that moment came and went in 2006 when he gave up the reins of power for the first time since gaining them a half a century ago.  

Both the U.S. and Cuban governments have botched this thing over and over, and, arguably, haven’t always wanted reconciliation or normalization or any other nuanced form of moving on. Over the last several years, the Obama administration’s policy toward Cuba has been something of a work in progress. Openings to travel and exchange have been slow, at times arbitrarily approved, but in the end, have proliferated. The president’s call for a new beginning in the relationship was followed largely by more of the same when it came to USAID programming, which is not your usual development programming in partnership with the host country. And when the U.S. had the opportunity to send a message, a gesture, by sending one of the Cuban Five who was released on parole back to Cuba instead, we didn’t. (Did we really want him on U.S. soil, anyway?)

Plenty has gone awry on the Cuban side too, starting and ending with the vague and changing approach taken concerning an American USAID sub-contractor who has served more than 3 years in Cuban prison now. He’s become essentially a bargaining chip, like it or not, intended or not, in a negotiation that never took place. And for all the constructive proposals Cuban diplomats insisted they were putting on the table, everyone on both sides knew the U.S. was unwilling to budge without Alan Gross back home.

Both sides seemed to be waiting for something that just wasn’t happening.

But something is happening now. It appears that Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t want to wait anymore. Where his predecessor allowed talks on several fronts to stall – insisting no further progress could be made without movement on the Gross case – Kerry has chosen to move ahead with them again. Who can say whether restarting talks on migration and direct mail this summer was intended to convince the Cubans to release Alan Gross (I doubt it’s enough, if he must be traded), or whether they went back to the table because that’s what diplomats do. Either way, it’s a small but welcome step forward.

One more thing: As I prepared to post this piece, I remembered that the U.S. has just let Rene Gonzalez, the first of five Cuban intelligence agents to be released on parole from U.S. prison, go to (and stay in) Cuba, about a year before his parole was to have ended. Whereas the Justice Department opposed letting Gonzalez remain in Cuba when he was first released, it has reversed itself and now saying it better serves U.S. national security for him to be outside of the United States.

I expect Cuban government officials were quick to make clear that this in no way is equal to sending Alan Gross home (he has served perhaps 20% of his total sentence so far, and this issue of parity is something Cuban officials have raised in public and private). But coming as it does at the beginning of a new Secretary's tenure, one who has historically been in favor of a fresh approach to the U.S.-Cuba conflict, I expect they may still have taken the development as a gesture of good faith from Kerry (surely he weighed in with the Justice Department on the potential foreign policy implications of opposing or supporting Gonzalez's request).  It's now up to both sides to keep the ball rolling.