June 15, 2017
Ahead of President Donald Trump’s anticipated announcement on a change to US-Cuba policy, the United States’ bilateral relationship with the island nation has once again come under scrutiny. To discuss the implications of a potential rollback of US-Cuba relations, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center held a conference call with Brigadier General David L. McGinnis, member of the American Security Project’s Consensus for American Security, José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Vision of the Human Rights Watch, and Emily Morris, associate fellow at the Institute of the Americas at the University College London. Jason Marczak, Director the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, delivered opening remarks and moderated the conversation.

Jason Marczak began by stressing the importance of getting “Cuba right,” noting also broader implications for US relations with the rest of Latin America. Turning first to Brigadier General McGinnis, the call addressed the effects of a policy change from a national security standpoint. General McGinnis stressed the Cuban government’s interest in maintaining a dialogue with the United States. 

Dr. Emily Morris spoke on a potential rollback’s implication on business and economics, stating that while the economic advantages of increased openness have led to a rapidly expanding private sector, other sectors of the Cuban economy have been negatively impacted by the crisis in Venezuela, resulting in a decline of the nation’s GDP overall. “The economy is doing two different things at the same time. There is one that is in stagnation, and there is one that is very dynamic,” explained Morris.

Noting that a US rollback of relations could be done in the name of human rights, José Miguel Vivanco pointed out the United States’ policy of isolation has been rejected by the rest of the world and has rather isolated Washington, rather than Cuba. “To expect different results from a policy that is not having any impact in terms of serious improvement in human rights and democracy in Cuba is highly unrealistic,” he said. As an alternative, he suggested the United States seek a strategy that applies multilateral pressure on Cuba to address the country’s, as he called it, “deplorable” human rights record.

Returning to security, Brigadier General McGinnis affirmed that the United States should engage Cuba to achieve mutually shared objectives of stability, prosperity, and peace in the hemisphere, and stressed that this “is the principal reason why we need to stay engaged and increase engagement with Cuba.” From his perspective, the trade embargo has failed to isolate Cuba, but rather “they’re engaged around the world with everybody but us.” He stressed that imposing American values on any nation, whether it be Cuba or Afghanistan, detracts from the United States’ goal of establishing peace and security.

Importantly, the United States has already established four distinct working groups with the Cuban government to address nine areas of strategic focus, ranging from counterterrorism to human trafficking. Should the US take a stronger stance against Cuba, these working groups would fall apart. “It is long overdue that the United States ceases unilaterally dictating who rules and how they rule,” said the Brigadier General.

Emily Morris then discussed how a shift in policy could cause a “ripple effect in the rest of the economy,” in addition to severely impacting Cuba’s private sector. Not only would entrepreneurs lose out, a more restrictive policy would also impact investors’ confidence in the island nation. Should the United States reduce its business with the island, Russia and China will eagerly fill the void. Cuba has an “enormous web of diplomatic contacts they are trying to convert into economic partners,” she stated.

Closing out the conversation, José Miguel Vivanco affirmed that a change in US policy would shift the focus away from Cuba’s human rights abuses, rather than toward it. “Restoring restrictions on travel and commerce are unlikely to lead to improvements in Cuba because these types of unilateral actions by Washington are perceived by everybody else as imposing indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban population as a whole,” said Vivanco.