Published by The New York Times on December 16, 2015. Written by Julie Hirschfeld Davis.
WASHINGTON — As the anniversary neared of President Obama’s announcement of a historic détente with Cuba, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who was born in Havana and fled with her family to Miami decades ago, gave him a reality check. The policy change had done little to improve life for the Cuban people, she told the president at the White House last week, and had actually made their human rights situation worse.
Give it time to work, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said the president responded, the strategy has been in place for only a year.
When he announced last December that he was shattering a half-century of hostility between the United States and Cuba in favor of a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries, Mr. Obama conceded that, “Change is hard.” In the 12 months since then, that prediction has been borne out. The normalization process has proceeded in fits and starts, yielding a handful of concrete accomplishments — most notably, the reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana shuttered since the Cold War — and lingering difficulties.
For all the aspirations of a new era in United States-Cuba relations, the reality has been a much more gradual process, still thwarted in many ways by the American embargo and major differences over politics, human rights and property claims.
Tens of thousands of Cubans have fled the country since the Dec. 17, 2014, announcement of the rapprochement, fearing that the Cuban Adjustment Act, the American law allowing them to obtain residency upon their arrival, will soon be changed. Many Cubans were left sorely disappointed, with little evidence of change on the streets, and even less in the daily lives of those earning paltry salaries and still struggling to find eggs and other staples.
“We went into this with no illusions that the Cubans were going to radically change their political system overnight, but our belief has been that greater engagement, greater people-to-people ties, greater commercial activity does open up space for the Cuban people,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, who participated in the secret talks that led to the rapprochement. “Part of what we are doing is raising people’s expectations, and that’s appropriate.”
To critics like Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, the president has fallen far short. They argue that the United States has made valuable concessions to President Raùl Castro over the past year — including removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, restoring diplomatic ties, and loosening sanctions on travel and business with the island nation — without getting much in return.
“Despite some low-level agreements the administration trumpets, truly little has ‘progressed’ as it relates to Cuba or everyday Cubans,” Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said through a spokesman. “Repression has risen and has led to more Cubans trying to flee the country under Communist rule, while at the same time little progress has been made on human rights, U.S.-confiscated properties, return of wanted U.S. fugitives and democratic freedoms.”
But the president sees glimmers of hope in the painstaking work of prying open a half-century’s worth of institutional barricades between the American and Cuban governments, and he has explicitly refused to condition the thaw in relations to specific demands on Mr. Castro’s government. He told Yahoo! News last week that he wanted to visit the island nation during his final year in office and meet with pro-democracy dissidents there, in part to “nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.”
“We reject this notion that our opening is a form of concession, because the opening is the whole point — we think it’s in our interest to have people traveling down to Cuba and doing business there,” Mr. Rhodes said in an interview. “There’s a natural momentum to these things.”
The process has already yielded some concrete results, with the number of Americans authorized to travel to Cuba up 50 percent over the last year, a growing private sector in Cuba and two United States telecommunications companies sealing roaming agreements there.
In April, Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro shook hands and met face to face at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, becoming the first American and Cuban presidents to do so in more than 50 years. They had their first meeting on American soil in September at the United Nations. In between, after marathon negotiations by both governments, the United States and Cuba re-established formal diplomatic relations in July, opening embassies that had long been closed.
The Treasury and Commerce Departments have acted twice to ease sanctions and allow Americans and Cubans to forge closer personal and business ties, and on Wednesday reached an agreement on commercial flights.
An environmental cooperation deal was signed last month, and a pilot program to explore restoring direct mail service between the United States and Cuba will soon begin.
Diplomats have started high-level talks on human rights issues and resolving billions of dollars in claims against Cuba by American citizens and businesses for property seized in the revolution, as well as Cuban counterclaims for more than $150 billion in damages Havana claims to have suffered from the embargo.
“It was just pure fantasy to think, as it has been for the last 60 years, that the United States could directly shape the nature of the Cuban political system,” said Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba specialist and senior research fellow at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “It feels like we’re getting excited about tiny steps, but those tiny steps, against the backdrop of the thicket of laws and regulations that have produced a ‘no’ as the answer to any question, and now we’re figuring out how to get to ‘yes’ — that’s progress.”
Still, many obstacles remain, including an overarching concern among the Cuban government and American companies seeking to do business there that their assets will be seized because of outstanding sanctions and provisions of the embargo.
The Cuban government has resisted many of the economic reforms and other steps that will facilitate such deals, American officials acknowledge, partly out of fear that swift change will wash away the gains of the revolution in a sea of capitalist investment. There is also a worry in Cuba that opening its market to the United States might weaken the pressure on Washington to lift the embargo once and for all.
“When you stand back and look at this against the backdrop of almost 60 years of complete adversity, complete lack of dialogue, absolute distrust, it’s been a remarkable year,” said Scott D. Gilbert, a Washington-based lawyer who helped negotiate the release of Alan P. Gross, an American imprisoned in Havana, as part of last year’s agreement. “But there is frustration and disappointment on both sides that more deals haven’t gotten done. It’s a process that still needs a lot of work.”