By J. Preston Whitt
Early last month in Havana, COHA Research Fellow J. Preston Whitt interviewed Josefina Vidal, head of the MINREX (Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs) North America division. In this interview, Vidal outlined the Cuban opinion regarding the Washington-Havana stand-off, and highlighted some of the proposed changes to be discussed at the April 16 Communist Party Congress, the first session of this body since 1997.
Cuba’s Pragmatic Compromise
Vidal began with what she called the Cuban “tough list” of requirements to officially normalize U.S.-Cuban relations. The seven-topic list started off, of course, with the demand of lifting the U.S. embargo. Next, Cuba requires the return of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban spies currently serving long prison sentences in the United States. Cuba maintains that the Five were wrongfully convicted, arguing that they were investigating anti-Cuban terrorist organizations and were not acting against the United States government or the interests of the U.S. citizens.
Vidal reported that Cuba demands its removal from the U.S. List of Terrorist Nations, as well as the return of U.S.-held Guantanamo naval base to Cuba. The United States must also cease all “democracy promotion programs” in Cuba, which seek to undermine the Castro régime. These programs include any propaganda initiatives such as Radio and TV Martí. Lastly, Vidal finished her “tough list” with a call for “financial compensation for the damages caused by the blockade.”
As expected, Vidal and other members of the Cuban leadership recognize that negotiations are unlikely to resolve all of these demands in a manner pleasing to Cuba. In that vein, Vidal articulated that the pragmatic compromise of proposals that have already been made were agreed upon with the hope that cooperation on the ostensibly less controversial topics would create the necessary confidence to tackle the demonstrably more difficult issues.
There are other proposals that, from the United States’ viewpoint, would be relatively simple to fulfill. For instance, Cuba has proposed negotiations for a new immigration agreement regarding its citizens. From Vidal’s point of view, the lack of a stringent U.S. policy towards Cuban immigrants has directly resulted in human smuggling operations. Similarly, one set of issues on which the United States and Cuba already have a basis of cooperation is drug smuggling, whereby the U.S. immigration policy will be brought into question. In addition to the 34 U.S. allies with whom Cuba already has drug trafficking interdiction agreements, the U.S. Coast Guard cooperates on a case-by-case basis with Cuban officials to address trafficking in Cuba’s frequently abused territorial waters. With its record recently lauded by a U.S. State Department report, Cuba wants to expand and institutionalize this cooperation.
Cuba’s demand for removal from the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list also seems like a relatively simple way to display goodwill and commitment from the U.S., given that the case for continued Cuban inclusion is a notoriously weak one. Other members in this terrorist archive include: Syria, Sudan, and Iran—a group in which Cuba seems to stand out in light of its modern geopolitics and international relations. This is further complicated by the fact that Cuba has turned the tables and accused the United States of committing acts of terrorism. Vidal stressed that Cuba, as a fellow victim of terrorist attacks, understands the U.S. concern with issues of bona fide national security. Vidal furthermore pointed out that Luis Posada Carriles, the “Bin Laden of the Americas,” was undergoing a trial in Texas, and that, due to politics, Cuba had “no expectations” of a just outcome. The Texas court found the defendant innocent, to the outrage of Cuban authorities. Cuba has always alleged U.S. support for Posada, and his exoneration of all charges has only encouraged that view. Cuba considers the trial an “insult,” according to the Granma—the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party—especially since Cuba had evidence to prove the he had cooperated with the U.S. investigation in every possible way.
When asked about Cuban willingness to resume commercial relations with the United States, Vidal’s reaction could not have been more robust. She admitted that the U.S. “sanctions hurt Cuba every day,” and that Cuba has been willing to come to the table for years—as long as that table was based on “mutual respect…reciprocity…and nonintervention.” Vidal criticized several of the more problematic U.S.-Cuban policies, such as— what she called—the “lie” of Cuba’s alleged lack of religious freedom, and the U.S. propaganda channel TV Martí, or, as she put it, “la TV que nadie ve” (the TV that no one watches). Even so, Vidal stressed that Cuba is ready to discuss everything; “there are no taboo topics.”
Unfortunately, Vidal was not optimistic that Cuba will find satisfaction soon. She deprecated the Obama administration’s “small changes for U.S. interest” as illustrative that there has been no sincere shift in the essence of U.S. policy. “We have not seen a real willingness by the ‘President of Change’ to introduce real change in U.S. policy for Cuba.”
Policy Changes at the Party Congress
The second section of the Vidal interview revolved around the upcoming Party Congress, scheduled to begin this weekend. The last Party Congress was in 1997, given that these meetings are only called in “times of important or strategic changes.” It is important to specify, however, the role that the Party Congress plays. Its members are charged with the responsibility of outlining the general lines of policy so that the government can then translate these mandates into laws and see to it that they are implemented.
Vidal summarized that the general theme of the meeting was the “Reduction of the size of government—yes, it is too big.” This is a surprising admission from a Cuban official, one that indicates Cuba’s commitment to become a more efficient system. Vidal reported that the Congress is “considering everything,” including property rights, shrinking the public sector, investment, and even social spending. She even admitted that “the state cannot continue taking total responsibility.” Of course, she was quick to reiterate that the hallmarks of Cuba’s system, such as guaranteed education and healthcare, would always be protected. The reforms are largely aimed at reducing waste and inefficiency.
Vidal mentioned two other important aspects of planned government reforms. First, she reported that Cuba has been working with the Canadian government to design and implement a tax system, involving training programs to be offered by Canadian tax auditors in Cuba. Also, Vidal confirmed that the reconciliation of the dual currency system is a top theme.
According the Granma, two of the most controversial changes to be confronted by the Congress involve “the orderly elimination of the ration books” and “implementing flexible rules for house exchanges, sales, and rentals.” These two topics indeed seem radical, given their history and traditional context within the Cuban system. Even so, most Cubans interviewed seemed confident in Raúl Castro’s abilities, even when it came to losing their traditionally guaranteed rations.
COHA will be preparing an in-depth analysis of all the policy proposals discussed at the Party Congress. However, it is clear, even drawn from Vidal’s few statements on the subject, that the international community can expect some serious changes in the near future from Cuba.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow J. Preston Whitt