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Rethinking Cuba

Pardee Center hosts conference on how policies might change


Susan Eckstein, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of sociology and international relations

Perhaps it’s easier to make nice with far-flung enemies than with next-door adversaries, which would explain why the United States has normalized relations and developed large trading partnerships with Russia, China, and Vietnam, but not so Cuba, 90 miles from the coast of Florida.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, when Fidel Castro took power, nationalized American business interests, sent many Cubans into exile, and transformed the nation into a Communist state. An embargo against all trade and traffic between the nations was instituted by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, intended to strangle the Castro-led government. It remains in effect, codified by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which forces another round of congressional legislation and presidential signature before the ban can be lifted.

President Barack Obama has moved, albeit with small steps, to thaw relations between the United States and Cuba. But the president who campaigned on a willingness to speak with adversaries is not ready to lift the embargo or to chat with Raul Castro, who became Cuba’s president when his old and ailing brother stepped down last year.

In a nod toward the delicate diplomatic dance around Cuba, Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future is hosting the conference Whither U.S.-Cuba Policy? A Dialogue Among Policy Makers and Scholars tomorrow, with panel discussions involving academic experts and policy makers, and an address by U.S. Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Susan Eckstein, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of sociology and international relations and author of several books on Cuba, will participate in one of the conference panel discussions.

BU Today: The Obama administration seems to be warming toward Cuba. What moves has the president made?
Eckstein: One thing that has happened publicly is that he removed restrictions on the rights of Cuban-Americans to send remittances and visit their families. That is up to presidential discretion and has varied between the Clinton and Bush administrations. Things got pretty drastic in 2004 under Bush, when Cuban-Americans could visit their families only once every three years. Your mother could be dying, and you couldn’t go see her.

Talks have resumed between high-level people in Washington, D.C., and Cuba on issues like immigration, but have not led to a specific public policy change. For example, I think there may be some readiness to remove Cuba from the list of terrorist countries.

Relations with China and Russia, current and former Communist countries, have improved. Why do you think it’s taken so long for the U.S. position on next-door neighbor Cuba to change?
It cannot be explained as an anti-Communist policy, because we’ve resumed relations with Vietnam as well as with China. The explanation is really about domestic policy. A large percentage of Cuban-Americans live in the country’s largest swing state, Florida. They account for about 8 percent of Florida’s electorate.

The political contributions made by the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee have also been important. It’s been documented that in Washington, there’s a relationship between receiving money from this PAC and how congressmen vote on legislation.

There have been a couple serious tightenings of the embargo since the Cold War ended. In 1992 and 1996, the Cuban-American lobbyists were fundamental to that.

What is the Obama administration’s goal in reaching out to Cuba?
The goal would probably be to resume diplomatic and economic relations. But that’s not going to happen overnight. I think the United States would only do that if either Cuba gets perceived to be so economically important to this country — for example, if there were major oil finds — or there’s a regime change.

How are Cubans responding to this? And how are Cuban-Americans in Miami responding?
I don’t think Cuba is a cohesive force, that there’s a Cuban view. I think some people are wary or distrustful of the United States. There’s unfortunately an almost adolescent relationship between Cuba and the United States. If one country wants something, the other therefore postures that it doesn’t want it. Any shifts get scrutinized and questioned for ulterior motives.

Miami is split. There are some who are still hard-line on Cuba. There’s also a new generation of Cuban-Americans that has two parts to it. One group is children of the early émigrés, the next generation, born in this country. They tend to be more flexible. They’re not only the children of their parents, but they are a product of the American school system, the American media.

You also have the newest Cuban-American immigrants, who’ve come in the post-Soviet period. Many of them didn’t know prerevolutionary Cuba. They didn’t lose anything. They didn’t lose their property. They have a very pragmatic view of life, not an ideologically driven one. They’re like classic immigrants from any country. What they want to do is earn money, share it with their families back home. They want to see their families.

The early Cuban-Americans don’t send money to family still in Cuba, and they don’t want other Cuban-Americans to send it. They refuse to visit. They want to kind of pressure-cook Cuba, squish it to the point of collapse.

The Pardee Center conference Whither U.S.-Cuban Policy? A Dialogue Among Policy Makers and Scholars, with sponsorship from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, the College of Arts & Sciences, and the Latin American Studies Program, is being held at the BU Trustees Ballroom, One Silber Way, ninth floor, on Friday, November 6, from 1:15 to 5:30 p.m. Five panel discussions fill the afternoon. The final panel features Fulton Armstrong, a senior advisor to Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) on the Western Hemisphere to senate foreign relations committee, and Carl Meacham, a senior foreign policy advisor to Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Eckstein, and Paul Hare, a conference coordinator and former British ambassador to Cuba.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu.


3 Comments on Rethinking Cuba

  • Anonymous on 11.05.2009 at 9:26 am

    Great Metaphore

    Congratulations Professor Eckstein on a succinct and appropriate metaphore for the traditional Cuban-American attitude that has dominated our foreign policy:
    They want to kind of pressure-cook Cuba, squish it to the point of collapse.
    In my opinion, this clear description of a political motive is an example of how to blow away the straw houses where politicians love to hide and reveal the pigish ideas inside.

  • Anonymous on 11.05.2009 at 3:19 pm

    Very interesting and concise. I can’t wait to see what comes out of the meeting tomorrow!

  • Pedro Animala on 11.07.2009 at 12:31 pm

    More of the same?

    What did come out of this conference?
    Since no media outlet, corporate or independent, seems to have covered the event (there are no follow up reports to be found) one have to assume it was another “more of the same” event.
    To expect Oba’bush to act any different than his predecessor, on this and other foreign matters, is like expecting Wal-Mart to pay decent living wages.. just ain’t gonna happen.
    Rise Up !!!

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