Panel Discussion as part of the Institute of the Americas’ Hemisphere in Transition Webinar Series

DATE:   Thursday, March 25, 2021,  10:00am-11:30am (Pacific Standard Time)


With the Biden Administration there is the growing prospect of a potential reversal of sanctions and regulations imposed by the Trump Administration that resulted in restricting travel, investment and remittances that were made possible under the prior Obama Administration.   At the same time,  President Biden faces a different political landscape with Cuba as human rights abuses continue to be a serious problem in the country,  its intelligence service continues to support Venezuela’s autocratic leader Nicolas Maduro, and unanswered questions about the strange brain trauma injuries experienced by U.S diplomats and their families in Cuba linger. Additionally,  pressure from the American Cuban community against a possible détente between Washington and Havana remains, adding a domestic political dimension to proposed relaxing of sanctions.

In spite of U.S. domestic political pressures, the recent San Isidro Movement led by Cuba’s artistic community –challenging government restrictions on the performing arts and calling for free speech, free assembly, ownership of businesses and political pluralism –provides hope that a new re-set in U.S-Cuba relations could lead to social and political changes on the island that would otherwise not be possible if current sanctions remain.

Given the evolving nature of U.S. bilateral relations with Cuba, the Institute of the Americas plans to organize a special panel discussion, as part of its virtual Hemisphere in Transition Series, with five noted Cuba experts offering a range of views on the topic of U.S-Cuba Bilateral Relations under the Biden Administration.

Responses to participant questions by

Professor William Leo Grande:

#1. Question: Does the Cuban regime prevail more as a result of American failed policy…rather than because of its relative success?
Answer: In the early years of the revolution, the new government’s policies of free healthcare and education, low-cost housing, and a guaranteed job for everyone raised the standard of living of many Cubans, especially the poor, and was therefore very popular. As the economy has stagnated, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban people’s discontent with the economy has been documented in a number of opinion polls. Today, the government’s economic performance is a source of discontent rather than support.

On the other hand, U.S. hostility has given Fidel Castro and his successors a perennial political foil to stoke Cuban nationalism, which has always been strong. The Cuban government can wrap itself in the Cuban flag and mobilize support in defense of Cuban sovereignty against U.S. efforts to once again reduce Cuba to a virtual protectorate, as the U.S. did after the Spanish American War.

#2  Question:   What …chances of a reformer like Gorbachev emerging as the leader of Cuba?

Answer: Not any time soon. Díaz-Canel has adopted the slogan “Somos Continuidad” (We Are Continuity). He has clearly pledged his support for Raúl Castro’s policy of economic reform, but there is no sign of any political liberalization analogous to glasnost. In fact, the lesson Cuban leaders take from Gorbachev is that his strategy was disastrous because it led to the disintegration of his country.

#3  Question: How can Democrats improve relations with Cuba and not damage the political landscape [in Florida, presumably]?

Answer: By engaging and mobilizing moderate Cuban Americans behind a policy of engagement. Obama was able to do that successfully, winning half the Cuban American vote in 2012, and, according to polling data, had more than half of Cuban Americans supporting his normalization policy by 2016. Other Democrats make the mistake of trying to ignore the issue of Cuba because they think it will only hurt them politically, but that strategy backfires because it makes Cuban Americans feel like Democrats are ignoring them.

#4   Question: How will Biden handle Venezuela?

A: Biden’s position has been very clear: Maduro is not the legitimate president because the last presidential election was dishonest; the solution to the crisis in Venezuela is free and fair elections in which the Venezuelan people can choose the government they want. What is not clear is how Biden will try to achieve that outcome when the Venezuelan opposition is as divided as ever and the regime is feeling more secure than it was a few years ago.

#5  Question: How strong is the argument about a “Fifth Column”?

Answer: The United States continues to spend millions of dollars annually trying to stimulate internal opposition to the Cuban government. It is not clear that these programs have had much success, but they give the Cuban government an excuse to accuse all dissidents of being paid agents of the United States.

#6:  Question: Aren’t the “two embargoes” related…?

Answer: Personally, I am not a fan of the “two embargoes” argument because the situations they refer to are so different. The US embargo is an intentional attempt to damage the Cuban economy in order to force Cuba to comply with US demands. It is not strictly speaking a violation of international law, but it has been widely condemned annually in the UN for more than two decades. The so-called internal embargo refers to economic policies that critics of the Cuban government think should be changed. It is not an intentional attempt by government officials to prevent economic growth; it’s a difference of opinion about what policies will produce growth with equity. To equate the US embargo with a policy disagreement is to confuse the matter rather than shed any light on it.

Dr. Margaret Crahan:

Question:  What about the Pope?  He’s from Argentina.  Does that help or make for a bit of a reproachment?

Answer:     On September 22, 2015 on his flight from Santiago de Cuba to Washington, DC, Pope Francis was asked by an Italian journalist if his positions on global and Cuban issues were leftist.  He replied “I don’t believe that I have said anything not found in the Church’s social teaching.  Things can be explained, and maybe an explanation could give the impression of being a little more “leftist”, but that would be an error of explanation.  No, my teaching…is that of the Church’s social teaching.”  Indeed, earlier on that same trip on September 20, 2015 in the Plaza of the Revolution before the Cuban political elite and tens of thousands of ordinary Cubans, Pope Francis made the point that all humans, including leaders and non-leaders, were obligated “to serve” and the “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.”  Service has been the prime emphasis not only of Francis’ 2015 trip to Cuba, but also of his papacy in line with Catholic social doctrine as it has evolved since the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891.  Rather than being a leftist, Francis is a pastoral pope whose public statements repeatedly refer to the need to serve the poorest and most afflicted.  That leads him to speak out frequently on issues of justice, equity, and the moral usages of power.   Since Pope Francis’ assumption of the Papacy in 2013 he has received intense media coverage in part because of his personal warmth, as well as his emphasis on social justice which some regard as leftist.

During his youth and career as a Jesuit provincial in Argentina at the time of the military regime (1976-1983), Francis was widely regarded as a non-ideological middle of the road cleric.  This was typical of the ecclesiastical leadership in the country where the majority of the bishops and clergy did not publicly criticize the human rights abuses of the military regime.   Francis was, in fact, faulted for not defending some progressive Jesuits who were detained and imprisoned by the military government for allegedly being subversives.

Argentina and Cuba share some common elements in terms of Catholicism.   Both countries are among the most secular of Latin America and have historically had a scarcity of local priests that was compensated for by foreign clerics.  At the time of the Castro revolution in 1959, approximately 85% of the priests and religious in Cuba were foreigners primarily Spanish who worked mostly in private education in urban areas.  A 1957 survey of the rural population in Cuba found that while 52.1% claimed to be Catholic, over half (53.5%) had never had any contact with a priest.  In addition, the percentage of Cubans who attended services regularly was below 5%.  Protestants and evangelicals participated slightly more.  Hence, while Cuba has been traditionally regarded as a Catholic country in reality it was relatively unchurched and as a commercial entrepôt during the colonial era and with the arrival in the 19th century of heavy influxes of Africans as slaves, as well as increasing numbers of US Protestants, it was highly diversified in terms of religion.   Formal religious participation has remained low up to the present although it has increased since the 1990s particularly as individuals sought release from the stresses of socioeconomic problems.  Indeed, in recent years virtually all religions in Cuba have grown although not spectacularly.   Religions have also increasingly filled the needs of the population not met by the government.   CARITAS, the Catholic global humanitarian organization, and B’nai B’rith have both been leaders in providing medicine and medical supplies, while spiritist and Protestant groups have been active in community-based activities such as providing foodstuffs, education, and assistance to women, children and youths.

Rapprochement between the Castro government and the Catholic church began in the late 1960s and early 1970s.   After acute tension in the early and mid-1960s in 1967-68 the Catholic bishops issued statements that criticized the US embargo of Cuba, as well as supported the welfare activities of the Cuban state.

In the early 1970s Fidel  Castro praised groups such as Christians for Socialism and indicated that the government could work with them.  Cooperation, however, increased more after the loss of Soviet economic aid in 1989 which contributed to the severe economic crisis of the early and mid-1990s.

Religious groups, many with international support, mobilized to provide food, medicine, educational materials and other items that were in short supply.  This increased contacts between church and state and greater

involvement by religions in civil society.   The situation also stimulated increasing contact between the Cuban state and the Vatican which tended to follow policy recommendations from the Cuba.