Polls make it clear that the American public is way ahead of Congress in supporting normalization of relations and reopening trade with Cuba. But positive numbers from several polls don’t mean that the normalization process will be easy or fast. That was unequivocally confirmed by Gonzalo Gallegos, Deputy Assistant for Western Affairs, at a State Department briefing Monday for 30 members of the Association of Opinion Journalists (AOJ).
Sixty-two percent in one key poll favor ending the embargo, even though just 40 percent think it will restore democracy to Cuba. A majority of the public approves of the way the Obama Administration is handling the issue.
The Administration’s approach hasn’t changed since Under Secretary Roberta Jacobson spoke to AOJ last year: small steps to build trust, enabling the two countries to deal gradually with some of the more contentious issues dividing them. The immediate focus, therefore, is strengthening people-to-people links, assisting entrepreneurs to tap economic opportunities and working to open the internet and telecommunications. That goal, Gallegos said, is so the “broadest swath of Cubans” can better see what’s happening in the world around them.
Focusing on the relatively easy activities (agriculture, maritime, civil aviation, climate change, for example) helps deepen dialogue around the more difficult challenges of human rights, press freedom, claims, and fugitives.
“The President has said that the future of Cuba is for Cubans to decide,” Gallegos declared. Not all Cubans I spoke with there a year ago are so sanguine. Many Cubans working on normalization are still uneasy that Cuban culture will be diluted as American businesses enter the new market. This month’s Chanel runway show and the incursion of film crews into Havana were seen by many Cubans as the cultural down side of normalization. The people of Cuba are friendly, optimistic about the new opening and proud of their heritage. They are quick to point out that “big countries do what they want; small countries do what they must.”
A current theme in Obama foreign policy is trying to help other nations improve governance and fortify the underpinnings of their economies, improving the conditions that drive immigration and crime. Of particular concern is the situation in Haiti, where the “people deserve to have their voices heard.” The United States is pushing the interim government to complete their electoral process and achieve a democratically elected government.
Gallegos noted that “our one true success in nation building has been in Colombia,” where our embassy has grown from 500 individuals (in the mid 1990’s) to 3000. Conditions were ripe because the people of Colombia wanted change and forced their government to respond, there were well trained police and military to move against the criminal elements, and the government was able to expend significant resources. For every dollar the United States invested, said Gallegos, the Colombian government put up $10.
The changing relationship with Cuba is unique. Gallegos, who served in Cuba from 2002-2004 under President George W. Bush, declined to speculate on any time table for regularizing relations. He certainly wouldn’t hazard a guess of how much progress would have to be made to persuade Congress to lift the embargo (“There is no micrometer”), nor would he predict what will happen when Raoul Castro leaves office as expected in 2018.
The goal of a peaceful, prosperous and ultimately democratic Cuba is out there. How far out is the great unanswered question.
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