In 2015, early on in negotiations to reestablish relations between the United States and Cuba, an interviewer asked Cuba’s then-chief negotiator, Josefina Vidal, if the ongoing process of rapprochement could still be reversed.
“My response then was that, ‘of course, that was possible,’” Vidal, now Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, told 250 attendees at a major international academic conference at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “Recent events,” she added, “proved it right… unfortunately so.”
Despite that — and despite the reality “the deep differences that exist between us will last and the normalization of ties with the United States will always be a complex and prolonged process, that we may never fully reach,” Vidal says she still believes “it is possible to develop a civilized coexistence between both countries.”
The Cuban Revolution at 60, a three-day conference, is bringing together Cuba scholars, policy-makers and policy analysts from Cuba, the UK, Latin America, Europe, the United States and Canada to take the measure of the Cuban Revolution after 60 years.
In her presentation, Vidal offered “personal reflections on the process of rapprochement that took place between the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2017.” Vidal, who noted she has dedicated more that 25 years of her professional life to US-Cuba relations, says what happened during that brief period was “the only thing totally different that has happened in our bilateral relations for 60 years.”
It happened when it did, she says, because the Obama government finally “recognized the legitimacy of the Cuban government and its historical leadership,” did not impose conditions on Cuba nor demand concessions to its domestic and foreign policy, and treated Cuba as an equal. While the US did not abandon its goal of ultimately imposing its will on Cuba, “negotiations and dialogues took place based on respect and reciprocity. Both parties undertook the negotiations in a constructive spirit, willing to find solutions to outstanding problems and identify areas of common interest in which the two countries could cooperate for mutual benefit.”
The elephant in the negotiation room, of course, was the ongoing, nearly 60-year-old US embargo, which could only be ended by Congress. “I have to remind you,” Vidal told her audience, “that the total lifting of US unilateral measures of economic coercion preceded similar processes with other countries.”
Cuba, she said, had a “realistic recognition” of Congress’ role in ending the embargo, but also understood “the wide use that the President could make of his prerogatives to implement [the embargo] in a flexible way. That is why we insisted permanently on this point.”
What the two countries achieved in just two years, she says, was “not irrelevant,” and it demonstrated that a “new type of relationship based on respect and equality was possible.”
There was still much work to do to improve those relations, she added, when along came Donald Trump. Just as the Obama administration had used its executive powers to improve relations, the Trump administration “has dismantled almost everything that was done with the Obama administration… Trump has even gone further, implementing measures that are unprecedented for their level of aggressiveness and scope,” including activating Title III of the Helms-Burton Act and even attempting to cut off fuel supplies to Cuba.
Today, she points out, the US embassy in Havana is “practically inoperative” and “there are no official contacts, beyond the formal ones that exist at a low level, not even to deal with matters of the highest priority.”
Despite all of that, Vidal says she sees the future “with serenity and still with some optimism, I would dare to say… As the Cuban Foreign Minister recently stated, we hope this will be a temporary situation, a low moment.”
While the two sides will eventually need to work to “restore and recover many things dismantled by the current US government,” Vidal says even that will not be enough. “The current setback reconfirms that the will and the executive powers of a US President are not enough; that in order to ensure the long-term irreversibility of an improvement of relations, deeper changes are necessary in the American political context, including in the embargo legislations.”