January 20 will mark two years since the arrival of President Joe Biden to the White House, and relations between the United States and Cuba seem to be in a sort of limbo.
The Democratic Party leader, who during his election campaign charmed Cuban-American sectors with the promise of reversing his predecessor Donald Trump’s policies toward Cuba, has hardly shown any signs of moving in that direction.
While some recent actions by Washington could be taken as a preamble to a new relationship with the island, Cuban authorities are skeptical of a government that so far has not honored its word in bilateral relations.
Claridad spoke with Cuba’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carlos F. de Cossío, to find out where relations between the two countries stand today.
Below, we share our extensive interview with the Cuban diplomat, in which we discuss topics ranging from the blockade and sanctions against the island, to the arrival of new progressive governments in the region, the right-wing coup attempts and the war in Ukraine.
Claridad: After a historic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States in 2015, which seemed to have left behind the policy of hostility towards the island, President Donald Trump torpedoed the process and reversed much of what had already been achieved. Current President Joe Biden has not changed much of that scenario.
Where do US–Cuba relations stand today?
Carlos F. de Cossío: After steps were taken to improve the US–Cuba relationship, an event occurred that changed everything: the 2016 US elections. Before entering, the (then) new administration announced that it would undo the steps that both governments had agreed upon and that allowed the Cuba–US relationship to evolve into a more constructive and respectful one between the two countries.
On the 2020 election campaign trail, Joe Biden promised, to his constituents, not Cuba, that he would quickly change the setbacks that occurred during the Trump administration. Two years have passed and this has not happened.
In fact, the Biden administration, while not exactly repeating the disinformation or dishonest allegations of the Trump administration, continues to pursue, broadly speaking, the same policy.
We have to remember that in order to undo what happened during the Obama administration, the Trump administration decided to raise allegations that had no basis, that were not true, but that were the pretext for the changes that took place.
C: Does Cuba think that relations with the United States today are better or worse than they were before the Obama administration?
CC: Today they are worse. Because currently what the Biden administration is doing is applying, almost exactly, the policy that was implemented by Donald Trump; a policy that was named by his government as one of “maximum pressure”, which means making life as unbearable as possible for the Cuban people in the hope that this will lead to the fall of the government.
That is the official policy of the Biden administration today.
C: A few weeks ago, the UN General Assembly voted for the 30th time to reject the US blockade against Cuba. Cuba has said on several occasions that the US is isolated in its policy towards the island, and yet the blockade remains in place.
Why do you think the blockade has not been lifted?
CC: We say that Washington is isolated because it is. It is nothing new, it has been isolated for the past 30 years. The international community does not support the U.S. policy against Cuba, in fact, it votes almost unanimously against it.
That policy still stands because of the overwhelming power of the US, and because of the belief of politicians in Washington that to have power is to be entitled. And that if they are powerful enough to pursue a policy of maximum pressure—a policy that is against human rights, that is inhumane and immoral—then just because they have the power to do so, they will continue to do so.
C: What does it take for the United States to get rid of the blockade policy against Cuba?
CC: They have to understand—something that seems difficult for them to do in Washington—that Cuba is outside the borders of the United States, that Cuba is and has the right to be an independent and sovereign nation, that the US does not have the right, nor does it have the capacity, to govern Cuba. It does have immense power to make life difficult, has immense power to do harm and has had immense power to punish generations of Cubans.
C: Cuban and US officials recently met here in Havana to discuss immigration policies between the two countries. There are those who speculate that the fact that Biden agreed to send a delegation to the island could be the beginning of a new relationship between Havana and Washington, like the one that existed during Barack Obama’s administration.
Do you see it that way?
CC: It is natural for the US to engage with Cuba on migration talks. We have a problem between the two countries. The US cannot solve it by itself, Cuba cannot solve it by itself. It is a phenomenon that needs discussion, that needs cooperation…there are agreements in place for that.
What I can say is that what describes US policy towards Cuba, what best defines its policy against Cuba, is the economic blockade and the policies of maximum pressure imposed during the Trump administration. That continues to be the main feature of bilateral relations.
C: But would you say that the Biden administration is taking steps toward a possible normalization of relations with Cuba?
CC: I very much doubt it. It’s hard for me to think that because certain steps are taken in areas that need to be addressed, areas that need a minimum of cooperation, in that there will be a change. As long as the US continues to enforce Title III of the Helms Burton Act, as long as it continues to enforce a policy based on dishonest allegations that Cuba is a sponsor of terrorism, as long as it continues to pressure governments in Latin America, Africa and other parts of the world, and threaten to take away bilateral aid if they continue to accept Cuban doctors, one cannot say that the US government is taking any steps toward a better relationship with Cuba.
C: What steps, then, should the US take for Cuba to consider that it is moving toward a normalization of relations?
CC: The list would be very long. But currently the US government has no explanation, and does not even take the time or effort to explain the reasons why Cuba continues to be a state sponsor of terrorism. That would be a significant step.
It would also be a significant step if, like all of his predecessors except Trump, he would use his authority to ensure that Title III of the Helms Burton Act has no place in US Courts for totally illegitimate claims against Cuba. He could also take steps to allow Cubans, free from political pressure, to receive remittances.
I could go on and on, but there are many steps he could take to stop punishing the Cuban people, which is what current US policy does.
C: Why, in your opinion, is Cuba not a country that sponsors terrorism?
CC: Because we do not sponsor terrorism, we do not support terrorism, we do not finance terrorism, in fact, we are victims of terrorism.
I could ask why the US says that it is not a country that sponsors terrorism, if it is the origin of most of the acts of terrorism that have occurred around the world, it has an agency that was created and has dedicated billions of dollars to conduct acts of terrorism against many governments, including that of Cuba.
Right now, there are people and organizations in the United States that are encouraging and funding violent actions in Cuba and bragging about doing so. One would think that this is illegal in the US and yet the US government tolerates it, implying that the current US government promotes, supports, and tolerates acts of terrorism.
C: In the past few years, new progressive governments have come to power in Latin American countries and at the same time we have seen new coup attempts from the right, all of them supported by the United States.
What do these progressive governments mean for the region and why is the US targeting them?
CC: [This] year, 2023 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, established by the US specifically to send a message to the [then] European colonial powers that the Western Hemisphere was an area of US domination and hegemony. That was the meaning of the Monroe Doctrine, and it has remained US policy toward the region ever since.
The United States believes it has a God-given right to intervene and determine what happens in what they call their “backyard” and what the new administration has called their “front yard”. Latin America and the Caribbean is no backyard, front yard or side yard of the United States, but in Washington they still feel that way.
Therefore, when there are progressive governments that threaten US interests by implementing social policies that benefit the majority of the population, when they threaten US opinion by believing that the wealth of the country should be for the enjoyment of the majority of the population, then the US labels those governments as extremists, radicals, and then begins to act against them.
C: After the failure of the Summit of the Americas, do you think the United States has learned its lesson?
CC: I don’t think they have learned much. Because they should have learned during the Cartagena Summit in 2012 and they did not. They simply believe that the people of Latin America and the Caribbean are inferior, that their societies are inferior, that their governments are inferior, and they have the hegemonic capacity to impose the desire of the United States.
C: Speaking of other issues. Cuba has said that the war in Ukraine could have been avoided. Why do you think it could have been avoided and, ultimately, why was it not done?
CC: First, our position from day one has been that there has to be a peaceful and diplomatic solution to what is a major problem in Europe. We say that the war could have been avoided because we believe that there is a great responsibility on the part of the United States to have pushed NATO as a threat all the way to its borders with Russia.
And this did not start in 2022, it did not even start in the 21st century, this has been US policy for several decades now; and it is a dangerous policy. It was logical to imagine that Russia would one day react; and we say it was not avoided because the ambitious goals of the US in pushing NATO to the Russian border reached a level where they could no longer be tolerated.
C: Cuba has been battling the US blockade for decades and has also gone through very difficult times, such as the so-called “Special Period”. Despite all that, Cuba has achieved great levels of social development and has maintained the socialist project as a symbol for the rest of the world.
At a time when we seem to be entering a new Cold War, what does the world have to learn from Cuba?
CC: First, we fought for more than 100 years to achieve our independence and we did not really achieve it until January 1959. Since then, we have fought to defend that independence. We have fought to achieve a society of social justice, where everyone can benefit from the wealth of the country, we fought to protect our sovereignty and our right to build the society the way Cubans want to build it.
We believe that Cuba’s resilience, the determination of the Cuban people, against all odds and against a relentless war by the most powerful country in the world, is a lesson to the world. And I am not saying that we have achieved our goals. Of course, our country is still an underdeveloped country, still a society with many economic problems, and yet we are a stable and peaceful country.
Imagine any country that had to suffer, for more than 60 years, a policy of economic warfare by the United States. And with all that, our country has been able to build a more educated society, with more scientists, more athletes, [a country] more peaceful, more free of crime, of drugs, of terrorism, of violence, than any country in the continent.
[All this] despite the hostility of the US, which is convinced that it can make Cuba a failed state, and Cuba is not a failed state.
This interview was conducted by Luis de Jesus Reyes and originally published in Claridad.