Cuba-U.S. Relations in the Trump Era An Interview with Santiago Espinosa

By  |  20 / June / 2018

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We’re sitting in a dark corner of a cafe in Havana, where our words compete with the  rock music blaring from the speakers. I’ve come to talk to an expert in Cuban-U.S. relations at a moment of change, with Cuba beginning its new political life under a government not named Castro, and the United States in its second year of the chaotic administration of Donald Trump. 

Santiago Espinosa is a professor and researcher in history and international relations with the International Policy Research Center and a member of the Research Group on the United States. He has published a number of articles and essays on U.S. foreign and security policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean.

Laura Carlsen:How has the relationship between Cuba and the United States changed under Donald Trump?

Santiago Espinosa:There has been a regression with the Trump administration. At first we thought that Donald Trump’s business sense would prevail, because there were interests and there were things achieved, and that as president he would take advantage of the opportunities that had already been opened up.

I’m writing an article now called “Cuba-United States: One Step Forward and Two Steps Back.” The problem is that we came to the conclusion that we could coexist in peace, establish dialogue. The two years of secret conversations between both sides that were held in Canada proved that we could resolve problems though dialogue. A lot of expectations were created, expectations that really peaked with Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba.

No president of the United States had visited Cuba since 1912. Barack Obama came with his family, with his daughters, and established an image of familiarity. That made a huge impression on the Cubans. And there was a really positive expectation within Cuban society because many years of hostility were beginning to break down precisely because the president came to re-establish relations, and with that visit came the liberation of five people whom we consider heroes, as well as the liberation of Alan Gross. 


“There was a really positive expectation within Cuban society . . . many years of hostility were beginning to break down precisely because the president came to re-establish relations”

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About 17 security agreements were able to be signed with Barack Obama, mainly those linked to confronting drug trafficking, money laundering, arms trafficking, influence peddling, slavery, and trafficking in immigrants. A bilateral commission was set up that agreed to meet on both shores for as long as necessary, every two or three months, to deal with important issues in the relations between the two countries. This bilateral conversation dealt with migration problems, visa problems–it re-authorized visas of up to 20,000 Cubans per year.

Both embassies were opened, and that was very symbolic. Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, participated in the embassy opening. Everything appeared to be going well. Telephone channels were established between the two presidents.

This coincided with the Americas Summit in Panama, where Barack Obama and Raúl Castro met and spoke. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton represented what was considered a new policy between the two countries. Barack Obama said that he was not interested in regime change in Cuba – those were Obama’s words verbatim–in his meeting with the Cuban president. Then came Barack Obama’s visit here. He requested to meet with young entrepreneurs and many thought that couldn’t happen, but the Cuban government agreed. And Barack Obama gave a speech in the Alicia Alonso Theater where young entrepreneurs participated, and where he spoke in a colloquial way.

All of this by way of showing the difference between one administration and the other.

I think that people-to-people contacts were really strengthened. Ships, those cruise ships with Semester at Sea, were coming more continuously, with U.S. students studying Spanish, some studying medicine. In other words, doors were starting to open, some that had been closed for more than 60 years. Until Donald Trump arrived.

In the words of President Raúl Castro, it was clear that Cuba was ready to continue respectful dialogue, always under two conditions: One, unrestricted respect for Cuba’s sovereignty when facing internal problems, and respect for independence. Cuba would never discuss issues of sovereignty or independence. 


“Doors were starting to open, some that had been closed for more than 60 years. Until Donald Trump arrived.¨


Our ambassador was invited to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. That sent the wrong message because we thought that the relations with the United States were going to be maintained and that they would be in line with normalcy. If they invited us, we thought, that means they’re keeping us in mind.

The Rubio factor

Then Donald Trump visited Miami on January 23, 2017, and he made it clear there would be a change in policy toward Cuba. That’s where the problems started. Here’s where Senator Marco Rubio stood out.

Everybody says he is of Cuban origin – he is not of Cuban origin.  He is the son of a Cuban father, but he wasn’t born or ever lived in Cuba. He lost disastrously to Donald Trump when he was a candidate for the presidential nomination, and Donald Trump was not even very, shall we say, friendly with the other Republican Party aspirants. Those U.S. elections had a lot of peculiarities, a lot of dirty laundry was aired. One way or another, Donald Trump denigrated Marco Rubio.

In Miami he declared that it was time to establish a new beginning in the relationship with Cuba. That new beginning meant a regression in the relationship that we had achieved up to that moment. Marco Rubio built himself up as the principal figure, along with Ted Cruz and Mario Díaz-Balart. We think that the measures Trump has been taking are a way of repaying the Miami right.

There have been two key moments. The first is the supposed sonic attack in the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. I say “supposed” because it is scientifically proven that there was no attack by Cuba… That led to a drastic reduction in personnel in the embassy here in Havana and the expulsion of 15 officials from the Cuban Embassy in Washington. This was a big setback for what had been achieved to date.

The second part of the regression in the relations between the two countries is the creation of the Task Force in the State Department for internet operations with marked subversive purposes.

LC: And when was that?

SE: That was several months ago, and it was aimed at youth with the objective of regime change, at a time when Cuba really is making a great effort to computerize society and open up the internet to the whole island . . .

LC:Another problem is that a lot of positions in the State Department remain vacant. They haven’t consolidated their own diplomatic corps, not only with Cuba but with other countries as well, such as Mexico.

SE:It’s very difficult. Cuba and Mexico have a historic relationship; it is seen as something very positive. But Trump only considers “America First”,building the wall and demanding that Mexico pay for it. Relations between Mexico and the United States are also quite tense.

LC:They’ve definitely deteriorated.

SE:They’ve deteriorated a lot. We can’t say that the relations with Cuba have deteriorated the same way, but they’re tense. In the Barack Obama period, and even including the first half of last year, many U.S. citizens visited Cuba despite the limitations established by the 12 categories. The U.S. became the second source of tourists to Cuba, behind only Canada. The Cuban market has always been the natural market for tourism from the United States. That has decreased a lot, because an orientation exists in the State Department for them to avoid visiting Cuba because they say it’s dangerous. They should walk around here to see for themselves how dangerous it is, how dangerous Havana is. But they still keep coming…

Another important element is the boycott and the blockade of Cuban entities and products, which U.S. citizens can’t even be in contact with.

No agreement has been overturned as of yet, but the agreements have been paralyzed. They have slowed way down. We’re currently having conversations about human trafficking with the State Department, but they’re very low-level.

Closure by decree

Something that the U.S. political system has– and you’ll know more about this than I do–is that a president can issue an executive order that the president who comes next does not strictly comply with. There are executive orders from Obama, [but] the president can’t end the embargo by executive order because the embargo is codified in legislation and only Congress can change it. When you read the law, it’s poorly written and even violates the U.S. Constitution. But there was a definite political climate when the law was established and to get rid of it now is very hard.

Executive orders from Donald Trump have placed limits on the number of people traveling to Cuba. For a year and a half now, academic contacts between the United States and Cuba have been considerably reduced. The Treasury Department practically has more personnel chasing Cubans than terrorists. Every once in a while, the Treasury Department imposes multi-million-dollar fines on banks, mostly European, and the consequences of that is that we can’t get access to latest-generation technology or medicine, among other things.

LC: Even before Obama there was a certain opening in the agricultural sector. Has that closed?

SE: It is closing. It has shrunk a lot.

Despite that, I think that there’s a willingness among both populations to maintain a stable relationship. I have felt, as have my colleagues who have visited the United States, that there are a lot of good people who want to help, who want to cooperate. And people from the United States who visit Cuba feel that too. They walk along the streets and they are not harassed. The Cuban government has repeatedly declared its willingness for dialogue, always with mutual respect. And it doesn’t seem that this is going to be achieved with this administration. The embargo has intensified, something that’s difficult to explain sometimes to colleagues from other nations — we really can’t get access to many things that are necessary for modern life.

LC:And when you say there are good people who want to help, what can they do? On a people to people level?

SE: Imagine that if we can’t travel, if we can’t do business, why do they keep coming? A short time ago, last month, a group of members of Congress came, six senators from both parties, with the idea and the intention to fomentdiscussion in the U.S. Congress that Cuba is not a danger to U.S. sovereignty, that it is necessary to allow U.S. citizens to visit Cuba as tourists, that it is necessary to take measures to permit commerce between the two nations, to re-establish the personnel of the two embassies, among other things. They met with the Cuban president. Patrick Leahy (came), and they came from the Republican Party, that is, it’s not just the Democratic Party that is promoting this. There are Republicans who firmly believe that it can be done.

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“The embargo has intensified… we really can’t get access to many things that are necessary for modern life”

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There’s something that’s very significant: In 1999, during the Clinton administration, a U.S. Coast Guard representative was established in the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba whose tasks included coordinating anti-drug-trafficking activities with Cuban authorities in the Caribbean. Caribbean areas are natural pathways for the passage of drugs to the United States. Since 2002 or 2003, the State Department’s worldwide evaluation of efforts to confront drug trafficking has recognized that Cuba seeks peace and has truly made considerable efforts to confront drug trafficking.

LC:The investment projects in tourism and exportation that had been established, and even those that had already advanced previously, what is happening with them now?

SE:I was talking with a U.S. colleague in December who told me that they are afraid to make any kind of investment because they can be harassed and even fined by the Treasury Department. Many letters of intent have been signed, but letters of intent are only preambles to a contract. There is a level of uncertainty. I would categorize the first year of Donald Trump as uncertainty. In the first place, nobody knows what’s going to happen. It’s a little clearer now, in the sense that there is a vision that is a little more direct in terms of what the Trump administration wants with Cuba.

LC:Regime change?

SE:Regime change. We are in the twenty-first century so the criteria for regime change have changed–now technology plays a crucial role–but it’s evident that regime change is one of the fundamental tasks of the Donald Trump administration.

LC:Is there something positive about this point in the binational relationship?

What’s positive is that the opening that was achieved during the Barack Obama administration permitted many U.S. citizens — business people, academics– who had an idea we wouldn’t call “distorted”, but you could call “unclear,” of the situation in Cuba, to be able to observe with their own eyes how we live in Cuba despite all the limitations we have. And that is something that can`t be hidden or undone. They’ve walked along the streets and they’ve seen how Cubans live, how they think, how they feel, what they lack, what they have access to, rather than just having some propaganda image. Many people from the United States have visited Cuba in the last four years.

Another thing is that many business people participate in international fairs that take place here in Cuba, principally the international fair in Havana. The U.S. stand last time was one of the largest, and that was because of the U.S. entrepreneurial interest in Cuba. Cuba is a country that we could call “virgin,” that has many things that interest the U.S. entrepreneur.

LC:What type of businesses were represented at the U.S. stand?

SE: Basically the agricultural sector. I’m talking about chicken exporters, agricultural products, farm machinery, fertilizer and vehicles.

Cuba is not the most important element in U.S. foreign policy. That’s one of the reasons why motions favoring relations with Cuba don’t move forward in Congress. There are other issues that are more important that have to do with Iraq, Russia, China, the Mideast, terrorism. That’s why we were foreseeing that things with the U.S. would stay normal.

Also one of the victories with Barack Obama, with the improvement in relations with Cuba, was the improvement of relations with Latin America. They said in Panama that if Cuba could not participate, there would be no more Americas Summit. That was headed by Rafael Correa, Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales. Even the government of Santos said yes, Cuba should participate.

LC: It’s my impression that because of the uncertainty, of how unpredictable Trump can be, one scenario is that, although he doesn’t care about Cuba, hitting Cuba could be an easy way to please his base. Another scenario is that everybody may be better off leaving things the way they are without making a lot of noise right now, because we don´t know if the noise is going to cause a contrary or a favorable reaction, and because of that doubt there may be no response when there should be one. A third scenario is that the combined pressure from business people and chambers of commerce that have a strong economic interest in opening up relations, and academics and other sectors that have less influence in Washington but also have interest in the opening, makes some headway in the pro-business side of the Trump administration. These three scenarios could also trade off or combine at different times or in different circumstances.

SE: Yes, I agree with you. Positive things happened under Barack Obama because the president has power over foreign policy… , like the talks with Iran over nuclear power, and the reestablishment of relations with Cuba because Cuba was the easiest adversary for obtaining a clear victory. And Cuba has a well-recognized prestige at the world level.

Now everything is going in the opposite direction. The United States wants to withdraw from the Iran agreements and from the climate accord – it already has announced it. The United States withdrew from UNESCO, the United States wants to stop financing the United Nations, the United States is demanding that European countries raise their defense expenditures by more than 0.5 percent–everything is moving in the other direction.

With the “America First” priority, Donald Trump’s politics have been mostly domestic. He has very much favored the military-industrial complex. And he has practically unleashed a new arms race with Russia. With Putin’s speech before the United Nation, we’re talking about a return to language from the sixties, seventies, eighties. The U.S. recently put out a report called a Worldwide Threat Assessment that was presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee that establishes first that the U.S. will not let any other power intervene, and in the second place that the principal threats to the United States, although everybody already knows it, are China and Russia, and then mentions Iran and North Korea, but also that it is going to increase the U.S. military presence in regions where it had previously been limited… We are facing a new, I wouldn’t call it a cold war, but we are hearing the same language as in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

LC:We can even see the U.S. policy toward Mexico in this context because the wall, border security, migration control, all of that builds new markets for the war industry; the drug war is another war front for them.

SE:Yes, it’s a lot of money. Do you remember the Fast and Furious operation in 2010? When it was discovered that the guns used by the drug traffickers in Mexico came from U.S. arsenals? The anti-drug agencies and the FBI were promoting that.

LC: Back to Cuba, do you expect major changes in the post-Castro era?

SE: Really, nothing is certain. The response that the average Cuban would give is that everything that has been achieved so far — in health, education, domestic tranquility — those things must be kept, sovereignty above all. We think that continuity must exist as much as it can. A little bit about Cuban history needs to be understood, because the Cuban thinks that continuity is better than East European-style rupture.

For example, I am black. My family is black. I practically have a doctorate in history, my son has a doctorate in computer science, my other son is a diplomat. In another society, this would be difficult. We are children of poor people, of a humble family, and my sons didn’t have to shine shoes, my granddaughters aren’t prostitutes. There are no drugs on the streets.

I have a lot of confidence in the young people. I have a lot of confidence that there will be continuity, and I’m also confidant that things will get better. Cuba has talent, there is a high level of culture, there is ability in the universities. But it’s true that the U.S. laws keep us fenced in and sometimes we have to find a way to breathe.

The United States is a world power that practically dominates 80 percent of the world economy. So things revolve around the United States, and Cuba cannot influence the United States. So as Martí said, “If they wage war on us with thought, we’ll win it with thought.” If there is a war of thoughts, it has to be won with thoughts. It cannot be won with rifles.

Translated by Kelly Garrett