(Photo at: http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/entries/reaching_out_cuban_people/)
Anya Landau French directs the New America Foundation/U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative. This post was originally published at The Havana Note.
Last week in Havana, U.S. and Cuban officials met for a second round of bilateral migration talks – talks which customarily happen twice a year following 1994/1995 accords and had been suspended since January 2004. (U.S. and Cuban officials also discussed direct mail service resumption in New York last fall). With no announcement following these latest talks and the Cuban Foreign Ministry accusing the Americans of provocation following the talks, it might seem like we’ve reached an impasse. But have we really?
What if the two sides are simply communicating the best way they know how? Just the other day, I caught part of the movie Thirteen Days (about the Cuban Missile Crisis) and I was struck by Secretary McNamara’s insistence that the U.S. should not simply employ customary “rules of engagement”; rather, McNamara insisted, Kennedy and Khrushev were “communicating” with each other, and that communication – rather than escalation – needed to be the focus.
Let’s review: The U.S. and Cuba met in Havana Friday, and according to the Cuban Foreign Ministry (MINREX), discussed migration and other issues. Cuba issued a rather run-of-the-mill statement immediately afterward, that offered no concrete progress but noted that the talks had taken place in climate of respect.
But then, on Saturday, MINREX released another, longer statement, and this one exposed the fault line in the bilateral relationship: Cuba’s insistence that the United States not interfere in its internal affairs and U.S. insistence on being supportive of internal democracy and human rights activists.
In its second official statement on the just-completed talks, MINREX fixed this criticism on the U.S. side: (and I’m paraphrasing from Spanish), no sooner than the bilateral talks were finished, than the U.S. delegation convened a group of dozens of dissidents at the U.S. Residence. Prior to the talks, the Cuban Foreign Ministry had urged the U.S. not to use the occasion of the talks to meet with dissidents, which the Cuban side would view as “provocative”. Indeed, MINREX called the U.S. action “offensive” and accused the U.S. delegation of being more interested in “subversion” than in creating a climate in which to address the bilateral concerns at hand.
The State Department has released no comment so far on the talks or Cuba’s statements (other than to confirm that the U.S. delegation called for the immediate release of an American contractor in jail since December).
Despite the angry tone of Cuba’s second statement, MINREX laid out Cuba’s short and mid-range priorities for the relationship, and reaffirmed its commitment to continuing to dialogue with the United States in a climate respectful the countries’ sovereignty. Some will conclude that Cuba is just looking for any excuse not to make progress. Perhaps that is the case. But what if it’s not?
The U.S. and Cuba are just embarking on what will be a long road to improved relations and cooperation. Some things are best said in private, but others must be communicated in public. The key is to make sure that taken together, the messages we send makes sense. Cuba seems to be sending the message, we’re willing to talk but not to negotiate our internal system. The U.S. message prioritizes advancing dialogue and also improving human rights in Cuba – what’s still unclear is how to do both.
In total, U.S. and Cuban officials have dialogued three times in nine months, and this is perhaps the most tangible progress the Obama Administration can point to in the relationship. The next round of talks should take place this summer in Washington, and the United Nations General Assembly meeting next fall offers another opportunity.
No matter the stern posturing of either side, and apparent lack of measurable progress, we simply do not know what goes on behind closed doors. It may be that no agreements are being signed because we’re at an impasse, or it may be that the two sides are slowly coming to understand the parameters for progress to which they are constrained and are even mapping out ways forward. So while we wring our hands and worry that U.S.-Cuban relations have stalled, let’s remember, nothing’s truly stalled so long as we keep talking.
— Anya Landau French