The United States will maintain its “maximum pressure” policy on Cuba in 2020 and is finalizing new measures to further cut off the revenue that flows into the Cuban government’s coffers, a senior U.S. official told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.
“Stay tuned, there will be more actions aimed at restricting their sources of income,” said Michael Kozak, acting assistant secretary of state for Latin America. “We’re looking for ways to restrict, restrict, restrict their freedom of action until they change their ways, which is a hard thing to foresee given their history, 61 years or nothing but repression and decline.”
The U.S. launched a “maximum pressure” campaign this year against the government of Havana for its support of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and human rights violations of Cubans on the island.
Kozak said the U.S. would push to squeeze further activities that bring revenue to the government, including the medical services export program that brought more than $6 billion to the Cuban government in 2018.
“In terms of the airlines, we have significantly restricted the schedule of the flights there and, again, we continue to look at other ways to tighten up the sources of revenue,” the official added.
Trump critics have questioned the effectiveness of the current policy toward Cuba. Although the Cuban government has acknowledged that U.S. sanctions are hitting the economy hard, it has not shown signs of abandoning Maduro. Instead, Cuban officials have suggested that the Trump administration intends to damage diplomatic relations and close the two countries’ embassies, reopened under Barack Obama in 2015.
Granma, Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper, accused the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Havana, Mara Tekach, of intervening in the internal affairs of the country. Cuba’s appointed president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, said in a recent speech that his government would respond to Washington’s alleged meddling.
Kozak, a career diplomat who was in charge of the Interests Section in Havana between 1996-99, declined to comment on the possibility of a breakdown in diplomatic relations and defended Tekach’s work “in defense of human rights and democracy” in Cuba.
“U.S.-Cuba relations had not been good since this regime took power 61 years ago,” he said. “They are back again as they were, in the early days of the revolution, trying to prop up similar dictatorships around the world, especially in Venezuela, where you see Maduro guarded by Cuban bodyguards because he cannot trust his own people, and military Intelligence penetrated by hundreds and hundreds of Cuban officers.”
“Talking about intervening in somebody else’s internal affairs, I think that’s a pretty good example of it,” he added.
NO CHANGES IN IMMIGRATION POLICIES FOR CUBANS
The embassy in Havana is currently operating with a minimum staff after the closing of its consular office in September 2017 in response to health incidents that affected 26 U.S. officials and their families and whose cause is still unknown, Kozak said.
The suspension of the issuance of visas in Havana and the restrictive immigration policies of the Trump administration have made it much more difficult for Cubans to travel or obtain asylum in the United States. That situation is likely to continue next year.
Kozak declined to comment on a bill introduced by Florida Democratic representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell to reopen the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program that has been suspended for more than two years, leaving more than 20,000 Cubans in limbo. The bill proposes to conduct visa interviews via teleconference.
“Cubans are still eligible to come to the United States under the same laws that apply to every other country in the world,” Kozak said. “Yes, it’s more difficult now because we’ve had to reduce our consular staff so radically.”
Although Trump’s foreign policy towards Latin America has denounced dictatorships in the region, those fleeing from those governments find significant obstacles in obtaining asylum in the U.S.
Cuban asylum seekers, like citizens of any other country, must now wait in Mexico to resolve their cases. Many who applied before the new policy came into force in May have been waiting for months in detention centers across the country. And the administration is finalizing agreements with several Central American countries for them to take the burden of immigrants, including Cubans, who cross their territories in their route to the Mexican border.
“Our asylum system has gotten completely overwhelmed, so we’ve taken these steps,” Kozak said. “It doesn’t mean people will get sent back to the place they’re going to be persecuted. They have to wait somewhere else while they get processed. In that respect, Cubans are being treated the same as [people from] all other countries.”
Currently, Cubans must travel to a third country to obtain U.S. visas, after the withdrawal of most diplomatic personnel in Havana due to several cases of U.S. officials affected with brain injuries and other symptoms. The incidents caused a blow to U.S.-Cuba relations, and several U.S. government officials described them as “attacks” targeting their personnel in Havana.
But Kozak refused to use that term to refer to what happened in Havana.
“People suffered physical damage to their bodies. We don’t know how that was done, or by whom, so we’re not going to speculate,” the diplomat said. “What we know is that they were injured, and we haven’t gotten cooperation from the Cuban side.”
First things first: The release of Alan Gross, which this newspaper has called for practically from the moment he was detained five years ago, is indeed welcome news. All Americans should all rejoice in his freedom. “The best Hanukkah,” the overjoyed Mr. Gross told reporters. “What a blessing it is to be a citizen of this country.”
Second: This is a new beginning, a milestone in U.S.-Cuba relations, but President Obama’s opening to Cuba is not yet the “game-changer” others have called it. The game won’t change until Cuba makes effective, substantive moves toward democratic reform in Cuba.
Third: Raúl Castro told the nation on Wednesday that Cuba agreed to restore full diplomatic relations “without renouncing a single one of our principles.” If those principles include maintaining a chokehold on liberty inside Cuba, the hopes of the Cuban people and the exile community will be dashed once again. The appearance on Cuban TV of the nation’s unelected leader in his military uniform, giving a speech containing the usual demagogic rhetoric, was not a promising omen.
Fourth: The Obama administration managed to get Mr. Gross home without falling into the trap of engaging in a hostage-for-spies swap. Mr. Gross was not, and never has been, an intelligence asset and he never should have been in prison. The swap of an American intelligence agent imprisoned in Cuba for the three convicted Cuban spies in U.S. prisons that was part of the arrangement that brought Mr. Gross home, together with the release of Cuban political prisoners, has numerous Cold War precedents, however. Why it could not have been arranged earlier, before Mr. Gross came close to dying in a Cuban prison, remains an unanswered question.
Fifth: The intervention of Pope Francis, who made a personal appeal on behalf of Mr. Gross to both Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, played a crucial role in Wednesday’s developments. So did his willingness to allow the Vatican to be the site of a crucial negotiating session between diplomats from the United States and Cuba. His role reflects the global consensus that the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic estrangement served no purpose.
Sixth: President Obama promised that the United States would not relent in its efforts to help the Cuban people: “We are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social and economic activities.” That should remain the guiding principle of American policy toward Cuba, though it may be harder to achieve under the new rules, which expanded trade, travel and remittances.
Seventh: “We continue to believe that Cuban workers should be free to form unions, just as their citizens should be free to participate in the political process,” the president said. Agreed. And until Cuba makes fundamental democratic reforms, the trade embargo should remain in place.
Eighth: Friends and foes of this country in Latin America have been urging a succession of U.S. governments to make this change. Now they should urge Havana with equal persistence to allow free elections.
No one should doubt the historic significance of the president’s decision. It required political courage, representing the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
The president has made a bet whose ultimate outcome no one can know. “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach,” he said. All who yearn to see freedom in Cuba can only hope this gamble pays off.