Relations Cuba-United States: between COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election campaign

“So far in 2020, the bilateral relations between Cuba and the United States have continued to deteriorate, not only between the governments, but also between its societies and peoples, even during the extraordinary circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

This article is part of the series “La Letra de Temas 2020 – Postpandemia: where to now?”

As a result of COVID-19’s peak having been reached, Temas-Catalejo asked a group of researchers to study the current status and the outlook for the rest of the year in Cuba. They were asked for a detailed diagnostic, examining not only the pandemic itself and its clinical aspects but also public health, and its socioeconomic, political, international and subjective ramifications—as well as the probable future.

In contrast to the haze of figures, received truths, declarations and reports that inundate the media, of hopes and recommendations directed to the government and which—as is common in the networks—pretend to be analysis, this series is directed towards figuring out the present and the future of the country in order to understand it better, like a road between politics and its circumstance.

As per the standard of Catalejo, La Letra de Temas 2020 is more receptive to other analyses than to other opinions.



So far in 2020, the bilateral relations between Cuba and the United States have continued to deteriorate, not only between the governments, but also between its societies and peoples, even during the extraordinary circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic. Since January 2017, the principal and only cause has been the decision by President Donald Trump to dismantle the policies of the previous administration and overturn the decisions made by President Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama on December 17, 2014. As is the case for many of the actions by the current Head of State, there is no reason for this except the apparent obsession to overturn everything done by his predecessor. From his inauguration, the preferred mechanism of Donald Trump in his policies towards Cuba has been the intensification of the economic, commercial and financial embargo so as to strangle the economy and intimidate Cuban society. In addition, his administration has continued to look for and apply new measures of coercion and threats.

There are few hopes for any modifications to this trend during what remains of this first presidential mandate. It is almost, if not completely certain, that there will be no change in a second mandate, should Trump win in the November ballots.

Since this is an election year, it is likely that Donald Trump will aim to strengthen this possibility, hoping to prevent the development of the Cuban economy, slowing down any kind of exchange between the two countries, freezing and∕or reversing all steps already taken in the process of normalization, as well as pressuring other countries to do the same. In his State of the Union address on February 3rd, he himself said so—an election campaign speech above all. And his administration has been true to this. In contrast to what many people thought, and what some have demanded in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, far from moderating or freezing the system of sanctions constituting the embargo [which Cubans denominate a blockade], and lower the anti-Cuban rhetoric or limiting the provocative actions of his diplomatic representatives in Havana, the administration has done the complete opposite.

The motivations for this policy seem to have domestic roots: the president believes that a harsh and ruthless policy against Cuba will favor his reelection possibilities. Presenting himself as the one who will provide the “final solution” to the Cuban problem—never mind how unrealistic and remote this may be—will please the toughest and most powerful sectors of the so-called “historical exile” as well as the conservative groups of his own party. It is a policy of “change of regime with prejudice”, which has already been attempted, without success, and with more or less intensity, since 1959, by the majority of the previous heads of state. It doesn’t matter that this policy has produced one disastrous failure after another in achieving the desired results—fthat of revoking of Cuban relations with Venezuela, discontinuing the relations between these two countries and the overthrowing of both governments. From the propaganda perspective, this has brought benefits without incurring any significant costs.

Although there has been criticism of this policy, there has never been any real opposition. However, there are different groups in Congress, in NGO’s, and in commercial sectors, which are waiting and are willing to work for a change in policy as the election campaign proceeds, and as soon as a change in administration is realized. These moves do have discreet backing within the federal bureaucracy.

The trend to continue attacking Cuba could vary marginally in the context of the last four months of the presidential election campaign because the steps to be taken—more restrictions on travel, on foreign remittances and commerce, rupture of diplomatic relations, and inclusion of Cuba in the list of states that sponsor terrorism—could be difficult, expensive and counterproductive to his election objectives. Therefore, Trump also cannot count on a very enthusiastic support of the federal bureaucracy which, in general, prefers not to close the opportunities for collaboration in the area of national security and the like. For this, it is indispensable to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and avoid its designation as a “state that sponsors terrorism.”

The strident campaigns in social networks against the Cuban government will probably persist in 2020 and, paradoxically, a worrying rise in sympathy in favor of Trump among Cubans who have recently arrived in the United States could persist. However, there also exists the perception, supported by recent history, that there is a silent majority in the Cuban community in the United States which prefers normal relations that permit more regular ties between families. This was already clear in 2009, when President Obama started to overturn the restrictive policies of the Bush administration.

This silent majority could begin to show itself if it is appropriately motivated by steps taken in Havana. The excellent performance of the Cuban government in the handling of the COVID-19 health crisis, its international cooperative approach to health, accompanied by its traditional intransigence in the matter of concessions that would affect its sovereign authority, could lead many voters of Cuban origin to choose a candidate like Joe Biden, who intends to reverse Trump’s measures and resume the relations as they were in January of 2017, at the end of president Obama’s second mandate as president and his own as vice-president.

Setting a new date for the IV Conference of the Nation and Emigration as soon as possible, and∕or announce some changes in the migratory regulation to facilitate family contacts and travels, would be among the measures that the Cuban government could take to encourage these changes. If the Cuban authorities start to realize the changes that have been announced for the post-COVID-19 recuperation period—which aim at the acceleration of economic reforms—this will have a positive effect and will give the Democratic candidates’ campaigns arguments to criticize Trump’s politics and promote the return of those adopted by Obama. Already some viewpoints favorable to these changes have started to manifest themselves in the mass communication media in Florida.

With Donald Trump, no prognosis is assured, but nothing makes us think that he will abandon his preferred methods: intimidation, coercion, and threats. In addition, these tactics are preferred by the functionaries he has appointed in key positions to implement his policies on Latin America and the Caribbean. And this is also the view favored by his allies in Congress, like Senator Marco Rubio.

However, it should be noted that John Bolton—one of the functionaries with the harshest anti-Cuba attitudes—has already left the administration, and Mauricio Claver-Carone—who from his position as Director of Relations with Latin America and the Caribbean in the National Security Council of the White House has been the key man in the whole offensive—has been proposed for another position.

In contrast to the reconciliation policy of Obama, which was founded in a system of cooperation on specific topics—within which the “change of regime” went to a second level or was transformed into a stimulus that could be interpreted as the “internal evolution of the regime”—Trump has returned to the politics of “change of regime with prejudice”, within which punishment and the threat of punishment, under the apparently innocent term of “sanctions”, are used as disciplinary mechanisms to cause the gravest harm or provoke fear. This is the practice of a type of bullying [sic] in the international arena and an out-and-out imperialist method.

Trump’s politics will fail to undermine the solidity of the resistance of the Cuban government and its people, and fail to succeed in Cuba moving away from Venezuela. His predilection for punitive and frightening policies will not facilitate a negotiated way-out for this country, in which the “Opción Guaidó” has not made any gains and finds itself bogged down. This trend will have a contradictory effect on the relations between Cuba and the United States. The survival of the “Revolución Bolivariana” will be good news for the Cuban people and their government, and will strengthen their will to resist. However, and on the other hand, Washington will surely take new measures against Cuba precisely due to the perverse logic of Trump and his collaborators: Havana is “guilty” of Maduro’s remaining in power and, therefore, must continue to be punished.

For Cuban civic society in general, but in particular for the emerging self-employed sector, Trump’s policies will continue to be prejudicial by promoting the strangling of the Cuban economy in any vulnerable sector, like tourism, gastronomy and even folk arts because, by limiting visits and remittances, he attacks two elements that are beneficial to Cubans on the Island in general and in particular for that sector: family and business visits. Amid the conditions of the recuperative process of COVID-19, these are parts of the Cuban economy whose rapid recovery becomes strategic.

On the bilateral plane, the topics on the broad migratory agenda will continue to be of high priority for the common and ordinary citizens on both sides of the Florida Straits. It must be remembered that both Raúl Castro and Barack Obama favored more interaction—even before signing the pact of December 17th of 2014—with unilateral measures such as, for example, the Cuban migratory reform of 2013, or the issuing of B2 multiple entry visas valid for five years, adopted by the Department of State.

Trump’s policies will persist in limiting all interchange and, in this way, prejudice those who wish to emigrate, those who hope to visit their families in the United States, those who need to travel to the northern neighbor country for business reasons, and those who make academic, scientific or cultural visits. They will also be contrary to the interests and wishes of those Cubans resident in or citizens of the United States who hope for normality between Cuba and the United States to allow travel in either direction. And finally, these policies will affect those North Americans who are interested in getting to know Cuba even given the limits currently in force.

With reference to the central issue of the policies towards Cuba—the economic, commercial and financial embargo—in 2019 the Trump administration used what had been considered the “nuclear option”: the activation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Law. However, up to now the two scenarios forecasted as certain have not happened: an avalanche of grievances and court decisions favorable to the claimants. It is probable that both trends will continue during the rest of the year. Facing this uncertainty, many potential claimants have taken a wait-and-see attitude. However, if the possibility of a Democratic victory starts to emerge in the election campaign, and thus, for Title III to again be cancelled, this could stimulate the generation of more claims, at the expense of the possibility that those already presented would persevere until this decision is made.

In 2020, the Trump administration has continued, and will continue to escalate two important lines of action against Cuba.

On the one hand, it will persist in trying to erode and counteract Cuban policies of collaboration in the area of health, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. This coercion will again take several forms: questioning the quality of medicine in Cuba; slandering Cuban collaborators in matters of health, accusing them of being involved in the internal matters of the countries in which they are working or to actually be agents of the Cuban intelligence and security services; fomenting the defamation that they are “slave workers”; promoting the abandonment or desertion of the Cuban medical missions; threatening with sanctions those countries that contract or solicit medical help from Cuba or, more directly, inciting those countries on which they have some influence to expel these missions—as was the case with Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia. This policy can have some success in spite of its malicious deception and impertinence.

The increase in these Cuban actions of collaboration during the pandemic crisis has shown that it will be very difficult for the Trump administration to successfully carry this execrable and immoral campaign forward. Close allies of the United States in several regions of the world have gone ahead with their plans to incorporate Cuban help in their struggle against COVID-19.

On the other hand, in spite of these limited results, the administration will aim to strengthen subversive activities. It will use the funds approved by Congress to finance groups that call themselves “dissidents” in a vain attempt for them to gain prominence. The intrusive activities of the United States Embassy in Havana, boosting and financing counter-revolutionary groups and leaders are sharpening. These activities will have an important provocative component, to which the Cuban government in general has not responded.

This line of activities will use different methods, especially those that are related to the most active rightist Cuban-American groups in the United States. In these campaigns, social networks will continue to be used, through the so-called Internet Working Group, and attempts will persist to take advantage of any crack that may open in Cuban society due to dissatisfactions that may exist. Finally, in spite of their ineffectiveness, the two traditional communication programs—Radio y Televisión Martí—will be maintained.

These activities will still have two central objectives: to project an image of “tough” activism for the benefit of the Trumpist social bases within Cuban immigrants, and to serve as instruments of provocation against the government and civil society in Cuba. They will also continue to expand through the social networks, with both subversive and propagandistic aims.

On the international regional level, the politics of the Trump administration towards Cuba are framed in a general hardening of his position, in an attempt to renew and implement the ancient and sordid Monroe Doctrine. Several Latin American and Caribbean countries will resist this policy, and Washington will try to blame Cuba for any popular disturbance or demonstration.

The global space is a second international area that will continue to be an area of confrontation and will have repercussions on the bilateral relations, both in its geopolitical aspect and in the multilateral governing institutions. As has been the case in the past, two tendencies that have traditionally favored Cuba will endure. First, in the geopolitical area, Trump’s ambition to set up a system of unilateral domination will provoke contrary reactions from the principal centers of world power, including some United States allies. Russia, China and the European Union will strengthen their relations with Cuba and will consolidate their opposition to the economic, commercial and financial embargo through different means and media, and in accordance with their own circumstances—particularly after the enactment of Title III of the Helms-Burton Law. One area in which this opposition will not be very effective is the financial, in which banks can only count on few possibilities that will allow them to resist the pressures.

Obsessed by his ambition to be reelected, Trump will persist in being ignorant of the realities of the world.

In relation to multilateral institutional mechanisms, and in contrast to Obama’s administration which aimed to work with and through them, Trump’s administration tends to underestimate them, ignore them, or sabotage them directly when they are not working in his interests. In this context it is not surprising that his aims to condemn or neutralize Cuba have failed. But he will not give up on them. He could even repeat the attempt to modify the vote against the embargo, as he did in the 73rd Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2018. As was the case then, he will face another failure.

In spite of the recognized prestige that Cuba enjoys as a State that provides guidelines for humanitarian cooperation and provides aide in times of disaster, Washington has tried, and will persist in trying to discredit the programs of collaboration in matters of health, and has tried and will persist in trying an old and futile strategy, to diplomatically isolate Cuba. Given the prestige and effectiveness of Cuban diplomacy—which is also perceived as a respected voice for any initiative that stimulates peace and understanding at a regional and global level—this policy has been counterproductive and has failed at all levels.

That these trends in North American actions against Cuba will persist at an international level in 2020 is foreseeable. The only thing that could stop or restrain them is the fact that Trump will tend to concentrate on his reelection campaign, which has become extremely complicated by the pandemic crisis, the concomitant economic recession and the anti-racist demonstrations known as “Black Lives Matter” [sic]. In these areas the president has been completely ineffective. In addition, he has lost several resources which traditionally have been of political benefit to him, among them the possibility to organize massive political events in which his social foundations have presented him with multitudes of flattery.

Facing the crude and unprecedented imperialist offensive of the Trump administration, the Cuban government and its society will react according to their proven and traditional policies towards the United States. These policies will continue to have five components: resistance and condemnation; serenity in the face of provocations; maintenance of the cooperative activities that have not been cancelled by the North American government, and a willingness to return to the ways of normality in the—not very probable—case that the administration is willing to do so in conditions of respect and mutual benefit; actions directed towards the neutralization of North American maneuvering; and actions aimed at strengthening Cuba’s external links with all those countries and groups willing to respect its sovereignty, and resolved to neutralize North American actions in the multilateral arena.

The politics of Cuban resistance and condemnation do not need further explanations. They are what the Cuban government has been doing and will persist in doing. In addition, Cuban society, in defiance of the growing harm caused by the policy of increasing and strengthening the embargo, will continue to demonstrate its support of the resistance and condemnation of the government. And Washington will continue to fail to provoke fissures—by coercion, intimidation and threats, as well as by subversion.

This general characterization can present two or three variations—favorable or not—in the current living conditions. First, the efficient management of the health crisis has strengthened the Cuban government internally and abroad. Second, the country’s entry in the post-COVID-19 recuperation process requires energetic and creative measures to solve the approaching economic difficulties, that have worsened—not only because of the embargo but also because of the measures that had to be taken to stop COVID-19—and that had their origins in structural problems, now recognized by the government, and which many Cuban economists had pointed out. All this will need the acceleration of the reform program already approved, as President Miguel Díaz-Canel and Raúl Castro, the first Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, have assured.

Third, and equally important for the bilateral relations in an election year, the signs to come from the Cuban government must define clearly that, without making any concessions, Cuba is willing to again take up the development of the normalization process, as designed at the time by both administrations under the leadership of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama.

Facing the provocative manoeuvers of the United States, Cuban policies will continue to be firm and serene. With this decision they will face the actions carried out by the functionaries of the Embassy of the United States in Cuba, which violate the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It is not the first time that officials of the North American and Cuban right try to provoke setbacks and breaks by this means. In reality, the professional sectors of North American diplomacy know perfectly well that any new rupture of the relations will affect the United States interests more than those of Cuba.

On the other hand, it is foreseeable that in Cuban civil society the certainty will grow that North American manoeuvers in this area are openly meddling and manipulative, and will reject them.

Cuban diplomacy, in all its official conduct with the North American government—by public and private means, will persist in doing what it has been doing up to now: reject and condemn every measure of intimidation, coercion or threat; neutralize subversive provocative actions that are being taken at the diplomatic level; manage the areas of cooperation that are mutually beneficial in a professional manner; get ready to take up the process of normalization again when conditions are appropriate; and adopt measures to renounce and oppose the economic, commercial and financial embargo, and reduce its effects on Cuban society.

On this last issue, the Cuban government, through Alejandro Gil, the Minister of Economy and Planning, announced before the pandemic crisis began that its policies on social and economic issues—which is the area of most of the coercion, intimidation and threats taken by Trump—will consist in carrying through a “gradual, permanent and continuous process of monitoring,” with the aim of “prevailing over the adverse scenario that the Cuban economy faces with the worsening of the embargo.”

During the rest of the year 2020 Cuba will pursue the development of its structure of external relations with a view to avoid the diplomatic isolation that the United States continues to aim for, and will continue to navigate its way in the strengthening of its external economic ties as related to commerce, tourism, foreign investments, finance and cooperation. The new post-COVID-19 context complicates this path of action enormously, but Cuba has clear reserves that will enable it to continue, and do more, with the good-will capital it has earned with its health collaboration activities. From before the COVID-19 crisis, these priorities of Cuban external policies were ratified by President Miguel Díaz-Canel in his speech during the Annual Assessment of MINREX [Ministry of External Relations]. These will now be even more pertinent.

Relations with great powers like Russia, China and the European Union, or with medium powers allied to the United States like Canada, Japan and Great Britain (now that it is no longer part of the EU), will be important, as they are opposed to the embargo and have an impact on the Cuban economy. This will be followed by collaborative action with countries of Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, with which Cuba shares a counter-hegemony agenda. It is certain that again Cuba will gather international support in the 75th Session of the General Assembly of the UN at the end of 2020 regarding the view to approve the resolution on the embargo. Against the actions of the United States, Cuba will persist in offering international cooperation in health matters and natural disasters.

A final reflection. Because this is an election year in the United States, the actions of different political, academic and domestic lobbies with a view to organize or influence the campaign programs of both parties—especially in the case of the Democratic Party—will be stronger. This generally means that studies on regions and countries, and the administration’s policies relating to these will be updated.

The study and lobbying centers related to the Republican Party will tend to produce studies and analyses that support or defend the effectiveness of Trump’s policies, stressing the real and imagined weaknesses of the Cuban economy and society. Those related to the Democratic Party will do the opposite; they will show how the actions of the administration have completely ruined the promising process begun under the leadership of President Obama, and they will look for signs from Havana that there is a willingness to restart it. Of course there are institutions of this type that tend to be open to academics and analysts that proclaim themselves as neutral and aim to produce documents that lay claim to impartiality. In any case, everyone will watch with growing interest what happens in Cuba in 2020. They will not always do so with impartiality and objectivity, which means that it is necessary to be particularly scrupulous in projecting a balanced image of the country.

As was already said, it is probable that the position of the Democratic candidate opens possibilities for the silent majority in the Cuban community, which will be influenced by the steps taken by the Cuban government towards this community and related to the domestic economy, encouraging the opening up of the private and cooperative centers.

In this context, there are two issues that may be important—marginally or not—for the bilateral relations. The first one, historically, is that during a North American electoral process there has never been such a marked contrast in the positions of both parties towards the Cuban question. Trump and his Republican Allies have conducted their politics like those of the majority of the previous administrations, in particular that of George W. Bush, for whom in 2006-08 there was no other solution than to accept failure. The Democrats, with a few exceptions, have shown themselves in this electoral cycle to be in favor of a return to the normalization politics run by the administration of President Obama, and of which Joe Biden formed part. As indicated by Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor between 2012 and 2016, his role in this process was not insignificant.

In contrast to the first issue, the second is that both parties coincide in general on their position on Venezuela. It remains to be seen whether, in the case of his winning the election, Joe Biden—once the failure of Trump’s manoeuvers to overthrow Nicolas Maduro at any cost has been demonstrated—would consider it necessary to introduce changes in Washington’s policies. In any case, he would inherit a disquieting situation in Latin America and the Caribbean because of COVID-19, the recession, and the specific failures of the rightist governments allied to Donald Trump, such as those of Jair Bolsonaro, Sebastián Piñera, Lenin Moreno and Iván Duque. It should be remembered that Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry did not disguise themselves when proclaiming the end of the Monroe Doctrine, which was received with approval in various sectors of assorted tendencies in the region.

In summary, expect great continuity in the deteriorated Cuban-North American relations, at least until the November elections, and in a context of great political polarization and crisis in the United States, and of opposition between continuity and change in the debate on the transformation of Cuban society. And, unfortunately, the challenge for us Cubans is to advance in this latter issue at the same time as to resist and prevail over the storm provoked by Donald Trump’s actions, which present possibilities of continuing for four more years if the election results are favorable to him.

Havana, February-July 2020

Translation: Catharina Vallejo

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