Deciphering diplo-speak on Cuba
Posted on Thursday, 11.21.13
Deciphering diplo-speak on Cuba
BY RICHARD E. FEINBERG
Diplomats often speak with purposeful ambiguity, to please multiple
audiences and to not give away their hand prematurely. But a careful
parsing of diplo-speak can offer valuable clues in anticipating future
In what was billed as a major statement on U.S. policy toward Latin
America and the Caribbean, earlier this week Secretary of State John
Kerry included four substantive paragraphs on Cuba — which were largely
misinterpreted by the U.S. media.
In Miami a few days before, in what according to administration sources
were “off the cuff” remarks at a fundraiser, President Barack Obama
hinted that he was considering revising policies toward Cuba. “We have
to be creative and we have to be thoughtful, and we have to continue to
update our policies,” he said.
John Kerry added meat to those remarks, detailing reforms underway in
Cuba — the reforms that presumably sparked the president to want to
“update” U.S. policies.
First, Kerry explained the improved, more pragmatic tone of U.S.-Cuban
relations: “Our governments are finding some cooperation on common
interests at this point in time. Each year, hundreds of thousands of
Americans visit Havana, and hundreds of millions of dollars in trade and
remittances flow from the United States to Cuba. We are committed to
this human interchange . . . ”
Kerry then threw this bouquet to the Cuban government: “ .. . we also
welcome some of the changes that are taking place in Cuba which allow
more Cubans to be able to travel freely and work for themselves.”
With good reason, the administration believes it can take some credit
for some of the positive changes underway in Cuba — especially the
significant growth of the private sector and the allied middle classes.
As a result of earlier administration decisions to selectively loosen
U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba, U.S. visitor dollars and
remittances by Cuban-Americans are fueling the emerging entrepreneurs on
Kerry then went on to criticize the non-democratic nature of the Castro
regime — hardly news, yet the thrust of much of the media coverage of
the speech. Phrases no doubt intended to please the anti-Castro
Cuban-Americans in South Florida and their allies on Capitol Hill. What
the media missed was an appreciation for Kerry’s careful choice of words.
Kerry labeled the Cuban government “authoritarian,” a much softer term
than the traditional “totalitarian” or “communist.” “Authoritarian” puts
Cuba in the same camp as, say, the Russia of Vladimir Putin or the
Venezuela of Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chávez — regimes we definitely
don’t like but with which we do business every day.
Kerry then called on the Cuban government to “embrace a broader
political reform agenda: and if more does not change soon, it is clear
that the 21st century will continue, unfortunately, to leave the Cuban
people behind.” But unlike the U.S. embargo legislation, the secretary
of State did not call for the immediate resignation of President Raúl
Castro. Rather, “more should change.” Kerry seemed to be suggesting that
the U.S. would accept — perhaps even prefer — a more gradual transition
rather than sudden upheaval.
For the United States, gradual change in Cuba entails fewer risks.
Sudden regime transformation might carry a superficial appeal, but it
could entail political instability and unpredictable violence, social
disarray opening space for international criminal syndicates, and even
irresistible pressure for international to quall civil strife and halt a
mass exodus of refugees. Unguided regime collapse in Havana could become
a monumental headache for Washington.
Many in the administration understand that the best strategy for
promoting gradual political liberalization in Cuba is to help build an
independent private sector and modern middle classes that aspire to
greater individual autonomy, economic opportunity, and material
prosperity — and who will seek a Cuba that is more “normal,” more like
other societies in the Caribbean basin where individuals have access to
middle-class consumption patterns and can pursue their talents and
careers independent of state control.
Neither Obama nor Kerry have told us just what new initiatives they may
be contemplating, as they seek to build on their initial successes in
nudging Cuba toward more pragmatic diplomacy and more forward-looking
economic reforms. But we should read in their diplo-speak that they are
signaling new approaches: rhetoric and policies that recognize that Cuba
is changing before our eyes, that favor selective engagement over
blanket sanctions, and that appreciate that gradual economic change in
Cuba today is the more realistic path toward political evolution tomorrow.
Richard E. Feinberg is a professor at the UC San Diego and served as the
Latin American expert on President Bill Clinton’s National Security
Council. His most recent publication is “Soft Landing in Cuba? Emerging
Entrepreneurs and Middle Classes.”
Source: “Deciphering diplo-speak on Cuba – Other Views –