Dan Erikson speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations

October 2017

By Jeremiah J. Baronberg

Though not without controversy, the effort to bring about a thaw in the U.S.-Cuba relationship was one of the Obama administration's signature foreign policy priorities. The attempted rapprochement sought to normalize bilateral relations, including restoring full diplomatic ties and easing travel restrictions.

As the new Trump administration takes shape, the durability of these changes is now being severely tested by recent reports of unattributed “sonic attacks” that have been experienced in the country by U.S. as well as Canadian embassy diplomatic personnel. While it remains unclear who is behind these unexplained phenomena, the U.S. has removed the majority of its embassy personnel from the country, leaving behind a skeletal crew, and issued a travel warning against Americans seeking to visit Cuba. Soon after, President Trump expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the United States.

In this context, Dan Erikson spoke on a panel at the Council on Foreign Relations entitled, Cuba 2018: What to Expect. Dan argued that we are now at an extremely important crossroads in U.S.-Cuba relations, one that requires a U.S. approach that is "cool, calm, collected, and strategic." He outlined three principal elements that underlie the current sensitive political moment:

  1. Political transition. Next year, Raul Castro is scheduled to step down as president, which means that for the first time in 59 years, there will no longer be a Fidel or a Raul Castro leading the country.

  2. Progress in normalization. The Obama-initiated normalization process is at a very fragile moment, with the new Trump administration having announced in June that it would conduct an inter-agency process will result in the issuing of a new set of regulations outlining its policies vis-à-vis Cuba.

  3. Regional dimension. The ongoing crisis taking place in Cuba's close ally Venezuela has implications for the U.S.-Cuba relationship and the stability of the region as whole.

Dan noted that the Obama-initiated effort to normalize ties between the two countries should be understood as a long-term process. Initial steps along the way included reestablishment of diplomatic relations, greater freedom of travel for Americans who wished to visit the Cuba, and regulatory changes which enabled entrepreneurs and businesses in the United States to engage with their Cuban counterparts. The latter helped to push along a trend that was already underway in which more than half a million Cubans are now in the self-employed, independent economic sector and no longer dependent on the Cuban state for their livelihood. This is already leading to greater economic autonomy for Cuban individuals, and over time is bound to create greater political autonomy as well.

From the U.S. perspective, Dan noted that there is today a much broader set of American actors that have interests in Cuba. These include members of the business sector, civil society, and religious communities. Having witnessed what he called a “huge level of interest” by American investors in Cuba, Dan emphasized that U.S. businesses that have managed to break away from the “herd mentality”—and to find sector or an angle that really works for them—have found the most success.

Under President Trump, there has been a very dramatic shift in tone, and the administration has signaled its intent to take a much harder line on Cuba. Still the “devil is still in the details” when it comes to any major changes in U.S. posture towards the country. And while the removal of the U.S. diplomats from Cuba and the expelling of Cuban diplomats from the U.S. may be a flash-point, there has not yet been a regulatory set of changes to match.

Today, Cuba watchers are still awaiting those regulations. Stay tuned.