14ymedio, Havana, 8 March 2023 — The Cubans detained after the 11 July 2021 (11J) protests are Havana’s only bargaining chip in its gambit to improve relations with Washington. Facing a severe and widespred economic crisis, the government is hoping for a diplomatic thaw that has yet to begin. Allowing the detainees to resettle in Spain, with the Vatican acting as intermediary, is the only thing that might accelerate the process.
“The problem is that Cuba is less and less willing to compromise and the international political climate is not the same as it was twenty years ago,” an annonymous source close to the negotiations told 14ymedio. He believes the regime wants to rely on the strategy it used with the seventy-five dissidents arrested in 2003 during in the so-called Black Spring. After being released several years later, most left the island under pressure.
The regime’s success depends on the process being a speedy one. However, it is dealing with two negotiators who can easily afford to wait: the Catholic church, which is intentionally forestalling any decision, and the U.S. government, which must take into account the opinions of Cuban-American voters in Florida before making any move.
“When Biden won the 2020 presidential election, members of his administration — especially the supporters of former president Barack Obama, who are very influential in the State Department — understood they could not follow same the plan for improving relations with Cuba as the last Democratic administration. Once they had successfully implemented that plan, which included remittances, contacts between businesspeople and more benefits for the island, the Cuban regime felt reinvigorated. Then came the July 11 protests.” says the source.
The demonstrations brought everything to a halt and then the Trump administration reversed course. Relations with Havana stalled as the government became increasingly repressive and hard-line with the protest marchers.
Pope Francis saw the 2014 plans to restore diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington fall apart. “Then, with the death of Cardinal Jaime Ortega,* who caught the attention of the whole world, there was no strong leadership with the capacity for dialogue within the Cuban Bishops Conference. The Pope has had to turn to Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley of Boston and Beniamino Stella to act as intermediaries. Both have recently visited Havana to hold confidential talks with the government on the release of political prisoners,” he points out.
The Cuban government wants the Vatican to give its blessing to a new raprochement with the U.S. and is counting on support from a good number of American politicians and businesspeople.
In its bid for Francis’ approval — the pope’s sympathy for the regime is no secret — Cuban officials have launched a campaign to canonize Felix Varela, a Catholic priest and one of the nation’s founding fathers. “That’s why a meeting with Stella was hastily called at the University of Havana,” claims the source. “With [President] Diaz-Canel present, it served the purpose of overshadowing the cardinal’s meeting with the Catholic cultural figures at the old San Carlos seminary.”
Stella’s diplomatic skills were on display during a press conference after his visit when he let it be known publicly that the subject of the political prisoners had been on the table. “The reason Diaz-Canel and the regime’s higher-ups were interested in Stella’s visit was clear: they wanted to politically mislead the church and, once again, the pope.”
The church’s canonization process is notoriously slow, however, and any effort to officially make Varela the first Cuban saint could take decades. The government in Havana cannot wait that long. The U.S. holds presidential elections in barely a year and a half, after which the entire international situation could change. Besides, Varela’s canonization would not be enough to earn the United States’ sympathy or speed up dialogue.
“They need a spectacular gesture, something like freeing the prisoners,” says the source. The experts agree. “The Biden White House is not paying much attention to Cuba,” says Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a Washington-based organization which supports the policy of rapprochement with the Island. “They are almost entirely consumed with the war in Ukraine and the deteriorating relations with China.”
Herrero believes Havana needs to take some concrete action that would “grab the attention of the decision-makers in the Oval Office.” Freeing the July 11 prisoners could be thing that reminds the White House of the importance of Cuban affairs, he told NBC News.
Social and political figures in both countries have increasingly relied on cultural events as a tool for improving bilateral relations. The singer Tonya Boyd-Cannon visited Havana last January and, shortly thereafter, so did filmmaker Dawn Porter, with the support of the Cuban Ministry of Culture. The well-known jazz musician Ted Nash also performed in the island’s capital thanks to the involvement of state institutions.
A unnamed spokesperson for the State Department told NBC, “Cultural programs are a longstanding, integral part of our public diplomacy activities and are designed to connect directly with the Cuban people.”
However, the “major obstacle” to normalized relations, as Benjamin Ziff, the charge d’affaires of the US Embassy in Havana, points out, remains the incarceration of the almost 800 protesters arrested on the island in 2021 and 2022.
The Vatican and the US are not the only parties working towards the prisoners’ release. As happened with the dissidents in 2003, Spain has reportedly offered to take in prisoners who want to leave the country.
“Spain wants to play a role in the negotiation because there are many Spanish businesspeople with interests in Cuba. Many of them have been financially ruined trying to do business in Cuba but the ’big guys’ such Meliá and Iberostar always land on their feet. The directors of these companies have, by now, lost hope that the Cuba’s regime will collapse under a wave of foreign tourism, which its dictatorial rulers themselves promoted. Now they just want to be there, doing business, when and if the transition comes.”
But the Cuban government will not find salvation in Spain or China, much less Russia. Only the United States can provide that, claims the source. “It has to be stated publicly that the Cuban dictatorship is desperate for contact with Washington. If a presidential candidate with a harder stance on Cuba wins the 2024 election — someone like Ron DeSantis, the current governor of Florida — or if there is a demonstration of public discontent similar to July 11, everything will collapse on top of them.”
*Translator’s note: Influential archbishop of Havana until his death in 2019.
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