An Interview with Dr. Soraya Castro Marino, Center for the Study of International Policy (CIPI)

Dr. Soraya Castro Mariño
Dr. Soraya Castro Mariño

The Long Process Toward Normalization: Cuba and the United States in the Trump Era.

Dr. Soraya M. Castro Mariño is a full Professor and Senior Researcher at the Center of Research for International Politics (CIPI) in Havana, Cuba. From 1985 to 2011 she worked at the University of Havana. Her research interests include U.S.-Cuban relations, U.S. foreign policy and U.S. foreign policymaking process. She is the author of many scholarly articles and co-author of several books. She has taught and conducted research at various academic institutions, including Georgetown University; SAIS-John Hopkins University; Harvard; Columbia; American University; California Polytechnic University, Pomona; California State University, Los Angeles. Dr. Castro Marino was a visiting Fellow at the International Forum for U.S. Studies at the University of Illinois in February and March of 2017. (For more on IFUSS visit our website at

Dr. David Schrag for IFUSS: You recently gave a talk here at the University of Illinois, titled: “A New Epoch in U.S. Cuban Relations: What Comes Next?” What has the process of rapprochement and normalization, initiated by Barack Obama and Raúl Castro (in 2014), entailed? Do you see this process continuing in any way, considering the recent election of President Trump, and, also, considering that Raúl Castro, the current President of Cuba, will not seek reelection in 2018?

Dr. Soraya Castro Marino: First, I would like to highlight that the announcements by President Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama on December 17, 2014, of the decision to initiate a new era in the relations between Cuba and the United States were of historic and political importance. They constituted the most significant change in United States policy toward Cuba since 1959. Over more than five decades, nearly all of the instruments of U.S. national power have been used in an attempt to overthrow the Cuban Revolution, from the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) to the imposition of the most comprehensive set of U.S. unilateral economic, commercial, and financial punitive sanctions against any country in the world. This U.S. embargo, known among Cubans as el bloqueo, was designed with the purpose of bringing about hunger and desperation as a means of regime change in Cuba. It was also intended as a form of collective punishment and impoverishment of the Cuban people.

Barack Obama overcame the symbolic cost of negotiating with the Cuban government and its historic leadership. His 2016 visit to Havana, the first undertaken by a President of the United States since 1928, formalized a new vision that broke with the traditional policy of hostility in favor of another that opposed the Cuban government by means of the “empowering” of the “people” and the identifying of specific Cuban groups and social strata as drivers of future transformations inside Cuba.

This vision permeated the Presidential Policy Directive #43 unveiled on October 14, 2016, that articulated an intention to develop a comprehensive and thoroughgoing government approach that would promote engagement with the Cuban government and people, and make the process irreversible as part of President Obama’s legacy.

Second: The development of the negotiating agenda between the Cuban government and the Obama Administration had been shaped by a creative and pragmatic manner in which specific actions have been taken, such as the removal of Cuba in May 2015 from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. While these policy changes were being implemented, official conversations were also taking place which led to the signing of 23 Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs), as well as arrangements, joint declarations, and technical proceedings in different areas of common interest.

This process has allowed for the construction of a basis for communication and understanding and to the establishment of an atmosphere of respect where negotiations deliver tangible results. The signed bilateral agreements also have had a positive spillover effect into the regional and the international arenas.

I would argue that the most relevant of the modifications adopted since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015 and the opening of embassies was the expansion of the spaces for negotiation and opportunities for cooperation in matters of mutual interest, like environment, health, security, migration, etc. In only twenty months, a lot was achieved in the political and diplomatic areas but very little has been advanced in the commercial and economic arena.

Third: It is important to understand, that the strategic interests of Cuba and the United States were being discussed in a dialogue of equals and about “the most diverse topics in a reciprocal way”, permitting the discussion and resolution of discrepancies and controversies by means of negotiations, all while both governments learn “to live with their differences”.

Unfortunately, this era of impressive advances might prove to be a short-lived and ephemeral historic moment in light of the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential and congressional elections. So far, on February 3, 2017 White House press secretary Sean Spicer says the White House is reviewing current relations between U.S. and Cuba.

IFUSS: The last three Popes have all visited Cuba. What role have these figures played in Cuba’s relation to the rest of the world? What do you think Cuba means to the Catholic Church?

SCM: That’s right. On January 1998 Pope John Paul II visited Cuba. His successor, Benedict XVI, visited the island in 2012, voicing the Vatican’s opposition to the Kennedy-era trade embargo/blockade and calling for “reconciliation” with Washington. The remark built upon the famed call of John Paul who said in his visit that Cuba should “open itself up to the world, and… the world [should] open itself up to Cuba.”

The visit of Pope Francis to Cuba, on his way to Washington in September 2015, had special significance as much from the political point of view as the symbolic, taking into account the role of the Vatican in the secret diplomacy between Cuba and the United States. Another transcendental occasion was the subsequent encounter in Havana of His Holiness Francis and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kiril, in February 2016, which situated Cuban diplomacy at the center of a global political event. The meeting had a political and strategic dimension and was the first between the Patriarch of Moscow and a Roman Pontiff since the schism between the Eastern and Western churches in 1054.

In his visit to Cuba, Pope Francis stated: “Geographically, Cuba is an archipelago, facing all directions, with an extraordinary value as a ’key’ between north and south, east and west. Its natural vocation is to be a point of encounter for all peoples to join in friendship, as José Martí dreamed, ’regardless of the languages of isthmuses and the barriers of oceans’ ”.

IFUSS: You have spoken about different directions U.S.-Cuban relations could take, in light of the new Trump administration. On the one hand, there is the scenario involving “Trump the hardliner;” while on the other hand, there is the scenario with “Trump the businessman.” Are there any hints you can discern as to which one of these approaches, or what combination of them, seems most plausible, and what their effect would be?

SCM: While in principle one can construct as many hypothetical scenarios as one wants, the key, however, is how you define the variables of the interactions between the actors and the factors that participate in the policy making process. I would say that we must at least define a multidimensional analytical framework to evaluate four geopolitical contexts: the United States of America, the Republic of Cuba, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the international context. But that would take more time than this interview allows, so I will just talk about two possible scenarios.

As I mentioned before, a review of Cuba Policy had been announced in February. One scenario: President Trump might reverse much of what President Obama did by executive order by countermanding it with another or other executive order, or orders.

But this also might have a negative impact for actors and factors that favor continuation of the process toward normalization. The process of normalization has received bipartisan support in Congress; in state legislatures; as well as among Democratic and Republican governors; along with diverse social and business sectors; entrepreneurs; progressive groups; the media; religious associations; political personalities; artists; celebrities; scientists; think tanks; and universities and academia. For their part, legislators from both parties have introduced multiple bills for the total or partial repeal of the blockade; for the abolition of all the restrictions on travel to Cuba; and for lifting barriers to agricultural trade. At the state and municipal level there is also considerable support for normalization.

But Cuba is not a priority at all, and thus the Trump Administration might defer or hand over its responsibility on this key foreign policy issue to domestic constituents, like Cuban-American legislators in Florida and New Jersey, and  a particular constituency of the Cuban-American community that maintains a hard-line position with respect to Cuba policy.

The second scenario: Trump the businessman. Trump might find it difficult to undo Obama’s blossoming opening to Cuba. At the same time, citing “interviews with former Trump executives, internal company records and court filings”, Newsweekreported that in 1998 a Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts representative went to Cuba and spent at least $68,000 while investigating potential business opportunities. To make things even more intriguing, Trump Counselor Kellyanne Conway commented that “nothing is definite” on Trump’s policies vis-à-vis Cuba.

As of this interview, the Trump Administration has been in the White House for only 50 days and is having problems of its own. So, to be more objective about the direction the policy towards Cuba might take, we have to wait a little bit and see who and what are the positions of the new political appointees to key positions on foreign policy and security institutions of the U.S. And we need to wait and see what kind of interaction there will be between the different actors and factors that either favor the continuation of the process towards Normalization or oppose it.

IFUSS: You have noted that there are issues of potentially common focus between Cuba and the U.S. which transcend national borders. These are, namely, issues of health and the environment. Could you speak a bit to the specifics of these issues?

SCM: Undoubtedly, the long and complex process toward normalization that was initiated on December 17, 2014, constituted a turning point in the conflictual relations between the two countries. At the same time, the asymmetry and the disparity of the capabilities of the U.S.—a world power that flaunts its political-diplomatic/cultural-informational/military supremacy as a nation-state on the global level—compared to the Republic of Cuba, profoundly affect the nature of their past and future relationship.

As you know the historical character of the relationship was fixed in the late nineteenth century with the intervention of the United States in the Cuban war of independence from Spain. The Cuban nation, born as a republic under U.S. military occupation and political terms, retains in its soul a sense of frustration, humiliation, and distrust. But, despite the historic conflict, the asymmetries, the lack of mutual trust, and the characteristics that dominated the relations between the two nations for fifty-five years, the tone during Obama’s last two years in office was one of respectful dialogue, negotiation, and cooperation on the basis of equality.

Negotiations also achieved a greater level of systematization with the creation of a Bilateral Commission that focused on defining the topics of the negotiating agenda in the short-term.

The principal function of this Commission was to establish the vision, structure, and calendar of meetings and the signing of arrangements, non-binding agreements, and Memorandums of Understanding by January 2017. Its purpose was to expand the areas of cooperation and dialogue about bilateral and multilateral issues, discuss matters about which there are different conceptions, and seek negotiated solutions to very complex questions.

The first component of the Bilateral Commission agenda relates to matters about which there is consensus between the two parties about the possibility of concretizing new arrangements for collaboration in the short and medium term. This includes broad issues related to the environment, climate change, the protection of biodiversity and shared ecosystems, the response to natural disasters, the fight against pandemics, infectious diseases, and other threats to world health, cultural, scientific, and academic exchanges, telecommunications, agriculture, meteorology, seismology, civil aviation, intellectual property, protection of trademarks and patents, application and fulfillment of laws, money laundering, drug trafficking, human trafficking and smuggling, and other crimes of a transnational nature.

The capacity to capitalize on experiences that previously produced positive results even when they were undertaken in an impromptu manner, as was the case with the combination of efforts by both countries after the earthquake in Haiti and in the fight against the Ebola epidemic in Africa, permitted cooperation in favor of the common good. On June 11, 2016 a Memorandum of Understanding on public health was signed that establishes coordination across a broad spectrum of public health issues

In the areas of environmental protection and the fight against climate change, substantial beneficial improvements have already been achieved. The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment of Cuba (Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente de Cuba, CITMA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Park Service of the United States in November 2015, facilitates joint efforts concerning science, stewardship, and management related to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

The process towards normalization also might be defined as the beginning of a complicated transition, in which everything—or almost everything—has to be constructed from the beginning.

But, the question remains: from the perspective of U.S. national interests, how will the Trump Administration understand and address these relations?

Dr. David Schrag is Program Coordinator for the International Forum for U.S. Studies (IFUSS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.