Arturo Valenzuela was the US State Department’s primary name for Latin America at the start of Barack Obama’s administration. As Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, he helped with plans for rapprochement between the United States and Cuba at the time, under the mantra of direct links with the people of the United States. Communist island, without releasing the regime pressure.
In an interview with Folha, Valenzuela affirms that the new context of social effervescence in the country gives President Joe Biden more chances of success in his approach to Havana, if he takes up or reformulates the measures put in place by Obama.
According to him, currently professor emeritus at Georgetown University, Biden does not plan to end the economic blockade of Cuba, to maintain or even increase the sanctions against the regime.
It should also focus on the direct link with the population and the private sector of the island, honoring opposition figures and encouraging demonstrations, such as that of July 11.
Thus, says the expert, mixing reward and reprisals, the American government hopes that the Cuban people will have more strength to fight for the democratic transition.
“The greater the liberalization, the Cuban people are less dependent on the government and therefore more able to attack on their own.”
On Thursday (22), Biden showed he would follow precisely this script. In a statement, the US president said the United States was on the side of the “brave Cubans who took to the streets to oppose 62 years of the Communist regime’s crackdown” and imposed sanctions on members of the Cuban government. , who the White House says are responsible for the oppression of protesters during the biggest protests seen on the island in decades.
What is the main difference in approach between the Obama and Biden administrations on Cuba? During the Obama administration, the absolute key was for the United States to find a way to establish direct ties with the Cuban people, it was not just about reaching an agreement with the regime. This inspired measures such as increased educational exchanges and policies that helped encourage the development of more independent entrepreneurs in Cuba, which the Cuban government did not like very much, although there had already been changes on the island.
One of the most important was that the Catholic Church no longer did what the Cuban government ordered, it was more independent and helped with domestic issues. This was reflected because Raúl Castro was a bit more open, less doctrinal than his brother. [Fidel], but that did not mean that the majority of the government was not intransigent.
Biden hasn’t had time to craft a new Cuba policy yet, but objectively it should be the same as Obama’s: it’s not about strengthening the government, reaching agreements on issues. essential – unless the regime begins to open the doors to democracy – but to pursue a policy that establishes a direct relationship with the Cuban people.
What has changed in Cuba since Obama’s visit to Havana in 2016? The crisis is much bigger, Venezuela is no longer so united and, therefore, it is difficult for others to show solidarity as well. The Russians tried to support the Cubans in the same way they tried to support Venezuela, but their capacity is not the same as under Soviet rule. There is a combination of significant hardships, along with the Covid-19 pandemic and other hardships, that make the islanders truly desperate.
After being Obama’s deputy and promising to roll back some of Trump’s sanctions, did Biden surprise him by being tougher on Cuba and, so far, treating the island more like electoral rhetoric, eyeing Florida’s Cuban-American vote? There are a sizable number – not, of course, the majority – of Cuban-American community voters in Florida who are not opposed to the policies of the Obama administration, on the contrary, are staunch opponents of the regime. , but argue that person approach the person. . The Cuban-American community is not monolithic.
Is domestic politics the wrong prism to apply to US-Cuban relations? Miami-Dade County is not the United States. It is not correct to think that the entire Cuban-American community will vote like the Senator [republicano] Marco Rubio wants [contra os democratas]. There are those who want to be able to send funds again [de dinheiro a Cuba], travel to Cuba to see loved ones, and that’s the balance the Biden government will have to grapple with.
When it comes to re-liberating remittances, for example, the danger is that the Cuban government will keep much of it, so maybe it will be necessary to negotiate with the regime, [dizer que] the United States will not lift the sanctions that do not allow people to send money to Cuba if the regime does not take 50%, 30% or 20%.
Does the Biden government have an appetite for this type of negotiation? It is premature to say this. I think they would like to find a way to get back to the support of the people, without strengthening the Cuban government, and to keep pushing for more liberalization on the island. The greater the liberalization, the less the Cuban people are dependent on the government and, therefore, the more able to attack on their own. With the protests escalating, this is something the Biden government is going to do: encourage, help people who are protesting.
How should the White House act to establish this direct link with the Cuban people without strengthening the regime? It is a return to many elements of Obama’s policy. Maintain relations with civil society organizations in Cuba, continue to support Cuban exiles and people like [a ativista] Rosa María Payá, who fights for freedom in Cuba. Connect with whoever is leading the protests [contra o regime], sending a signal that we support artists, activists and others who want to have a voice and not just subject to the monopoly of the Communist Party.
The spokesperson for the US State Department said the United States plans to strengthen the embassy in Cuba, explore ways to free remittances, but not to mention international pressure against the regime, and Biden announced more sanctions… It must be a combination of those things. There are hard-line supporters in the Cuban regime who don’t want to go anywhere.
Sir. Do you think Biden is considering lifting the embargo? I would say no, that’s not the direction he’s gonna take [o fim do embargo precisa ser aprovado pelo Congresso americano]. The question is how to give more power to the Cuban people, by establishing commercial relations, for example, with a network of hairdressers, or even hotels, establishments that may be in the hands of the private sector. By doing this, you are not violating the embargo, because you are not dealing directly with the state.
So, we won’t see a normalization in relationships? This is not a normalization with the Cuban government. This is how we are going to find a way to be able to give more opportunities and strengthen the Cuban people and, at the same time, to open up the regime more. Obama did not end the embargo either. I think Biden’s goal will be similar to Obama’s. The whole premise of Obama’s policy was that the hard-line approach to Cuba had failed for more than 50 years and that it had to be done differently.
In your opinion, could the embargo and sanctions against Cuba bring changes that protesters took to the streets to demand on July 11, such as more food, more medicine, vaccines and free speech? ? I believe him. In Cuba there are the extremists and the more moderate ones, and what tends to happen in regime transitions is that the more moderate ones stand out. So you have a country like the United States to identify some of these cultures and see if, in fact, by making some sort of agreement with them, it can achieve its basic goals, which are to empower the Cuban people. . This can mean, at times, making certain agreements with the Cuban government. It’s the politics of soft and hard power [poder suave e duro].
In this sense, will it be easier to negotiate with the government of Manuel Díaz-Canel than with those of the Castro brothers? Hardliners will want to resist, while moderates will look for something different. Now you have organizations, not just the Catholic Church, that play a supporting role for these moderates and for the Cuban people as well. Because of the changes, the different times, there are more opportunities to be successful with what Obama’s policies were. The goal is not to do something different from Obama’s policies, but to build on them at a time when, in fact, there seems to be more than one opportunity for them to be successful.
Arturo Valenzuela, 77 years old
Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University, with a BA in Political Science and Religion from Drew University and an MA and PhD in Political Science from Columbia University, he served as Undersecretary of American State under Barack Obama (2009-2011)