A journey begins with a single step
By Manuel Alberto Ramy
HAVANA -- I don't know if they
brought umbrellas in their luggage, but rain fell hard during the visit of the
10 legislators (six Democrats and four Republicans) who constitute the Working
Group on Cuba in the U.S. Congress.
At the head of the group were
representatives Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who for years
have pressed for changes in certain aspects of the Bush administration's
policies toward Havana. Flexibility is the keyword, especially as regards travel
and remittances, as well as commercial aspects. But the greatest emphasis was
placed on travel and remittances, whose frequency was harshly trimmed by the
Bush administration in 2004.
Once in Havana, the legislators
met with Ricardo Alarcón, president of the Cuban Parliament; Fernando Remírez de
Estenoz, member of the Secretariat of the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party
(PCC), in charge of international relations; Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque;
Yadira García, Minister of Basic Industries; the minister-president of the
Central Bank of Cuba, Francisco Soberón, and Pedro Álvarez, president of
Alimport, the company that handles trade relations with American producers.
They also met with Cardinal
Jaime Ortega Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, and with ambassadors from various
countries. They did not report meeting with representatives of the dissident
Although the visitors had
requested a meeting with the acting president, Army Gen. Raúl Castro Ruz, the
meeting was not held. In this connection, Flake declared at a press conference
on the final day of the visit (Sunday, Dec. 17) that the Cuban government "does
not understand that there is a new era, but the dialogue has begun and more
visits will take place in the future."
Picking up this statement by
Flake, a good fried asked me for my opinion about this gathering, which brought
us the largest number of American Congressmen and women to visit the island in
the past 50 years. This is what I think:
The visit was a good step
primarily because of its realism, based on working on the issues that bring the
parties together, not those that separate them. That posture has opened concrete
points of exploration regarding the war on drug trafficking, ranging from
specific operations to permanent coordination between Cuban and U.S. antidrug
forces. Both sides benefit.
Another aspect is the legal
issue that involves "fugitives from U.S. justice [in Cuba] and there are some
detainees in the United States that hold interest for Cuba." This point is
extremely important because it points to the case of the five Cubans imprisoned
in the U.S. for informing about terrorist plans against objectives in Cuba.
Again, this benefits both
sides, especially the American authorities, since, if the U.S. releases The
Five, it would help lift the discredit that hangs over the Bush administration
because of its double standard in connection with the struggle against
Some people think this issue
could also affect the Posada Carriles case. Posada is in jail in Texas for a
simple immigration violation that obviated his responsibility (admitted by him)
in the terrorist wave against tourism centers in Havana in 1996, which took the
life of a young man and left a dozen people injured. Posada is also accused of
being the intellectual author of the in-flight bombing of a Cubana Airlines
plane in 1976 that took the lives of 73 people.
Some may think that, because
Cuba waived its request for Posada's extradition in favor of Venezuela's bid for
extradition (Posada escaped from a Venezuelan prison before his sentence was
passed), the Posada case was outside last week's talks. But the waiver does not
bar the Cuban side from raising the issue.
The emphasis on breaking the
limitations on trips and remittances to Cuba, which the Working Group favors and
has recently gained favor among American citizens, was another topic of
conversation, according to the legislators' statements.
To Cubans on both sides of the
Strait, this issue is important because it deals with the family, which has been
arbitrarily redefined by President Bush. As to the Americans' right to travel,
it is a question of enforcing a basic tenet of the U.S. Constitution. Both sides
Any reader, upon seeing these
brief jottings, will appreciate that, yes, the meetings were good and issues
were broached that will initiate and widen the agenda.
Now, I return to Flake's
statement about the visitors' inability to meet with Raúl Castro, something he
interpreted as "a sign that the Cuban government is not ready to concede that a
new era has begun. But the dialogue as begun."
"What do you think about this
statement?", my friend asked. And I thank him for asking, because his question
enables me to deal with the realities of the dialogue table.
While it's true that the
legislators were not received by the country's acting president, it is also true
that they were met not by the chairman of the Foreign Relations Commission of
the National Assembly (Cuba's one-chamber Parliament) but by none other than the
president of the Assembly, Ricardo Alarcón, who is a member of the Political
Bureau of the PCC and an expert on U.S.-Cuba relations.
According to Congressman Flake,
the purpose of the visit was to "establish a dialogue" starting from the "new
dynamics" that exist on both sides of the Strait of Florida. That was a clear
reference to the change in government leadership in Cuba, now that Raúl Castro
is in charge, and the shift in the control of Congress to the Democratic Party.
It should be said that the Democrats' small and fragile majority in the Senate
now depends on the health of an ailing Democratic senator.
This aspect of the talks does
not sufficiently acknowledge the fact that beneath the "new dynamics" lie deeper
perceptions on the part of Havana. The Cuban government appreciates that the
Bush administration's defeat in the recent mid-term elections was the result of
the people's reaction to the policy blunders involving Iraq and Afghanistan --
not to a vigorous and consistent Democratic opposition to that policy. Hubris
diminishes credibility -- not of the Working Group, I hasten to say, because the
group does have credibility, but of the party to which many of the visitors
belong. This must be taken into consideration.
For its part, Havana is
interested in a constructive dialogue and in the normalization of relations. But
the nation is not desperate; it has no reason to be. Little by little, it has
emerged from the huge void of the 1990s, and the Latin American context is
increasingly favorable to it.
The energy factor, which is
key, has been sufficiently resolved. Thanks to an agreement with the Venezuelan
oil company PDVSA, Cuba receives 93,000 barrels of crude every day. Meanwhile,
national production has grown to 75,000 barrels per day. For greater assurance,
PDVSA will begin explorations in the Cuban zone of the Gulf of Mexico; Cuba,
through the alliance of its own producer, CUPET, and PDVSA, will be able to
explore and exploit oil fields along a stretch of the Orinoco basin.
On the topic of Cuban oil and
its implications, the U.S. Congressional delegation has interests that go from
the ecology to participation in, and exploitation of, the likely oil fields. No
American company is involved; however, six companies from countries that include
China and India are involved. In connection with this, Flake has co-sponsored a
legislative proposal that would allow U.S. oil companies to explore fields in
the Cuban zone of the Gulf of Mexico.
From an economic point of view,
Cuba is staying afloat macroeconomically. In its 2006 report, the United
Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC/CEPAL)
states that the island has achieved a GNP of 12.5 percent, a figure that
includes health care, education and culture services. However, international
analysts estimate that, if those factors are omitted, the nation's growth ranges
from 8 percent to 9 percent.
Cuba's problems lie primarily
in the domestic economy. While the solutions are emerging from an institutional
functioning, from a reordering of the labor, production and entrepreneurial
factors, they should and will likely continue through other mid-range measures
that imply apertures to other forms of property in specific sectors.
It should be said that, while
Cuba is interested in serious dialogue and sat down at the table to do just
that, the government is not running amok and has chosen not to give major
publicity to the U.S. legislators' visit. This is a third element the visitors
overlooked. Let me explain.
Except for a 165-word item in
the newspaper Granma on Dec. 16, neither radio nor TV have reported on the
visit. Newscasts on national TV have repeatedly played a clip that shows Raúl
Castro stating, in his Dec. 2 speech, that the Revolutionary Armed Forces will
guarantee Cuba's independence and sovereignty.
A coincidence? Maybe. But, in
my opinion, that's the message: Cuba's independence and sovereignty are not
negotiable and will be defended "whatever the cost." It is the other side of
Raúl's Dec. 2 message: to negotiate while respecting the national sovereignty
and independence and the peculiarities of Cuba's internal political processes.
That is why the Cuban leaders
did not agree to talk about free elections, pluralism, information and other
topics, a condition that Congressman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) described as
"disappointing." However, he immediately added that "the most important thing is
to hold more talks."
To sum up, there seems to have
been clarity on both sides. Realism seems to be the guideline adopted by the
American delegation and its Cuban interlocutors.
For the moment, the visitors
hope for what is probable in the United States, which they see as a return to
the immigration and remittance policies prior to 2004. Add to that the
availability of tourism for Americans and greater flexibilities for trade. And
if both parties coincide in hoping for what's probable, that in itself is a good
Of course, once normal trade
relations are established between both countries, the volume in the first two
years, according to estimates, would rise to $5 billion and would create jobs on
Officially and publicly, this
trip does not establish a negotiation -- as some have said -- or bring
preconditions under an umbrella -- as a few Cuban journalists have suggested --
but it is worthwhile as a beginning and a mutual assessment.
Fifty years of confrontation
are not resolved in 48 hours, but if, as Delahunt said, "there is a desire to
establish a dialogue in areas in which we might be in accord," in other words,
to emphasize the areas that unite us ("although I'm sure there will continue to
be profound differences with the Cuban government,") the dialogue has an
encouraging starting point.
For the time being, the meeting
has served to take each other's temperature, suggest ideas, and send signals --
red, yellow and green -- to move ahead for the benefit of both countries and the
relations of Cuban-Americans with their families and country of origin.
Manuel Alberto Ramy is bureau
chief for Radio Progreso Alternativa in Havana and editor of Progreso Semanal,
the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.