The delicate exercise of negotiating with the U.S.

On April 21, a new round of talks took place in Washington D.C. to review the progress of the existing migration agreements between Cuba and the United States, which had been paralyzed by U.S. policy since 2018. The good news was that the meeting took place — there had not been high-level meetings between the two governments in the past four years.

Emily Mendrala, deputy assistant Secretary of State, who headed the U.S. delegation, described the talks as a “constructive approach.” Carlos Fernández de Cossío, Cuban foreign relations vice minister and her counterpart at the meeting, highlighted the commitment expressed by the Americans to comply with the 1994 migratory agreements. However, at least from what has been disclosed, no new initiatives or significant changes in the positions of both governments were announced, raising important questions regarding the purpose of the meeting and its concrete results.

Most analysts pointed to the interest of the U.S. in curbing an increase in irregular Cuban migration as a main objective. Indeed, both Mendrala herself and Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security, expressed the desire to explore the possibility of resuming the agreements — the only viable way to deal with this problem.

However, the United States did nothing to accelerate compliance with the 20,000 annual visas established in the aforementioned agreements, but rather ratified the limited processing of applications as of May in Havana, something that it had already said previously, the maintenance of Guyana as a center for granting immigrant visas, and the need for Cubans to travel to third countries to apply for temporary visas. In short, the measures responsible for preventing compliance with the agreements that had caused the avalanche of Cuban migrants rushing towards the borders of the United States.

The question then becomes what prevents the fulfillment of the will expressed by US officials to put the agreements into operation. Obviously, Cuba is not the obstacle. Since 1995, the migratory agreements had survived enormous tensions, because establishing a legal, orderly and safe migration satisfies the security needs of both countries. It is true that the United States never gave up encouraging irregular Cuban migration, but the agreements favored a manageable environment for the US security services and avoided possible political crises generated by uncontrolled migratory flows.

With the excuse of the alleged sonic attacks on US officials in Havana, the Trump administration renounced this stability in order to ensure the support of the Cuban-American right and increase internal pressures in Cuba. Surely another of the elements that was taken into account came from the perverse calculation that other anti-immigration measures would also stop Cubans at the border and would transfer the problem to other countries. Finally, the pandemic was a temporary brake on migratory pressures, or the perfect excuse to face them in the most inhumane way.

This logic works for fundamentalist Republicans, like the supporters of Donald Trump, but it makes little sense that, after the domestic and international success of Obama’s Cuba policy, the Biden administration has adopted the option that only benefits its enemies, particularly on the immigration issue, thereby adding unnecessary tension to a sensitive phenomenon for his electorate, which he cannot resolve with the xenophobic methods of his predecessor. It is a trap into which his government fell from the beginning, and now he has no idea how to get out of.

The appointments of Mayorkas and Mendrala, among others, who were previously committed to the policy of improving relations with Cuba, aroused the expectation that Cuba would quickly return to the course established by the Obama administration, and which constituted a campaign promise by Biden. But other areas of the government apparatus, concentrated in the White House itself and some areas of the State Department, managed to impose their will by underlining other considerations

The first was not to compromise the fragile Democratic majority in the Senate, nor seek more enemies. Within this logic, the role of Cuban-American Democratic Party Senator Bob Menéndez stands out — an old enemy of Cuba, he also occupies the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee. Among other things, this committee is decisive for the approval of government appointments in the area of ​​foreign policy. Under Menendez’s direction, and with the help of Republicans, many Biden appointees were harassed about their positions towards Cuba forcing subsequent action on the subject.

Second is the myth that a change in policy toward Cuba would hurt the Democrats’ chances among Cuban-American voters. It has been shown that the Cuban-American vote is not determined by the Cuba issue, but if you want to look for a precedent, it is worth pointing out that the Democratic presidential candidates with the most Cuban-American votes received have been Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, especially the latter, who propelled the most advanced policy towards Cuba at a time when Republicans in South Florida were on the rise. As a result of the strategies of the Biden administration, the ground has been practically cleared for the Republican Cuban-American extreme right in Florida. As a result they will surely sweep the next elections, despite the fact that they stand out for their decadence, which is saying a lot in Miami. 

Finally, they gave in to Republican blackmail regarding the internal situation in Cuba. As soon as the 2020 elections were over, with financing and directives from the US government, the extreme right was mobilized in order to create conflict in Cuba, which would prevent a change in policy towards the country. The debilitating effects of the tightening of the blockade, the tensions generated by errors in the Cuban government’s management of the economy, and finally, the brutal impact of the pandemic created the conditions for this offensive to be strengthened, mixed with endogenous expressions of social discontent, which affected the domestic political scene. The control of the media matrix, organs of the mainstream media, the digital networks and the US government’s own propaganda machine took care of magnifying the problems and affecting Cuba’s image on an international scale.

Apparently, even some of Biden’s officials bought into the narrative of the forthcoming overthrow of the Cuban government and eagerly considered collaborating to credit him. The result has been that the policy towards Cuba is immersed in the struggle between the government sectors that are in favor of resuming the advances of the Obama administration, largely isolated and submissive to pressure from the right until now, and those that, either by conviction or default, have adopted the trumpist policy, which can be seen in the circumstances surrounding the recent round of immigration talks.

Two days before the meeting, the State Department issued a surprise circular where it reaffirmed the discredited version of the sonic attacks and announced the continuity of investigations that have not led anywhere. It also warns about the dangers of traveling to Cuba due to “the high levels of contagion to Covid-19 that exist in the country,” ignoring the fact that it happens to be one of the lowest in the American hemisphere, including the United States itself.

Faced with such diverse and contradictory signals, no one can predict the path that U.S. policy towards Cuba will follow. Let us assume then that the recent round of negotiations was a “positive sign,” as Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez defined it, in the battered state of relations between the two countries, and that there will be other meetings, at least in the hope that solutions can only be found by communicating.