Cuba: will the US normalize relations?

Some 56% of US adults support normalizing relations with Cuba or engaging more directly with the island's Communist government, according to an opinion poll released on Feb. 10 by the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, DC. Support for normalization was at 63% among Florida residents, significantly higher than in the country as a whole, while 62% of Latinos backed normalization. Even among Republicans the majority, 52%, wanted to improve relations; the number was 60% for Democrats. The poll, which claimed a 3.1% margin of error, was conducted in January among 1,024 US adults; the pollsters were Paul Maslin, who has polled for Democratic candidates, and Glen Bolger, a three-time winner of the "Republican Pollster of the Year Award."

The polling results contradict the conventional wisdom that US policies like the 52-year-old economic embargo against Cuba are dictated by US politicians' need to placate the Miami-based Cuban American right in order to win votes in Florida. According to José Pertierra—a DC-based attorney who has represented the Venezuelan government and is active in work for the release of the "Cuban Five," five men sentenced to long prison terms in the US for alleged espionage—US Cuban policy has in fact always originated with the US government, which has simply employed the Cuban American right to support this policy. But the US position is shifting, Pertierra told the Mexican daily La Jornada. "[W]e have already turned the page of the Cold War, except for individuals in Miami, where support for the blockade is an industry," he said. But Pertierra warned that "the White House doesn't necessarily want to lift the blockade but instead to relax, to normalize some things." (Huffington Post, Feb. 11; LJ, Feb. 11, from correspondent, Feb. 12, from correspondent)

The release of the Atlantic Council's poll coincides with other signs that US forces are interested in improving relations with Cuba. On Feb. 2 the Washington Post revealed that Cuban American sugar magnate Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul has visited Cuba twice recently and has met with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez; the industrialist is now "open to investing in Cuba under the right circumstances," the newspaper wrote. Meanwhile, former Republican governor of Florida Charlie Crist, who now running for governor as a Democrat, has noted that the embargo has failed to change Cuba's government and suggested that it should be dropped.

It seems likely that US business interests see opportunities in the new economic policies promoted by the Cuban government, which is drastically cutting back the public sector. There is also concern that US firms are losing opportunities in Cuba while other countries are taking advantage of the absence of US competition. On Feb. 10 the European Union (EU) agreed to new negotiations with Cuba over increases in trade and investment; according to the Reuters wire service, the EU "is Cuba's biggest foreign investor and second biggest trading partner after Venezuela." Brazil is also investing in Cuba; it financed an upgrade of the Mariel harbor, near Havana, which was inaugurated in January.

Any improvement in Cuba-US relations would still face strong opposition from much of the Cuban American establishment and from influential politicians in the two major parties. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, remains an embargo supporter, as does Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Another sticking point is the continuing detention of US Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross in Cuba and of four of the Cuban Five in the US—although one of the prisoners, Fernando González, is scheduled to be released this month. (Reuters, Feb. 6; New York Times, Feb. 10, from Reuters; LJ, Feb. 11, from correspondent)

There are also questions on the left. Michael Bustamante, a blogger for the progressive North American Council on Latin America (NACLA), notes that Alfonso Fanjul's family business, the Fanjul Corp., has holdings in the US and the Dominican Republic that include Florida Crystals, the La Romana International Airport and the Casa de Campo resort. "In the Dominican Republic, the Fanjuls have been subject to repeated allegations of labor exploitation, particularly of undocumented Haitian migrant workers," Bustamante wrote. "The US Department of Labor includes sugar from the Dominican Republic—much of which comes from Fanjul-owned plantations or is imported to Fanjul-owned refineries—on its annual ‘List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor.'" The Fanjuls also acquired Domino Foods, Inc., in 2001, shortly after the previous owners broke a notoriously bitter 20-month strike in Brooklyn. "So why is a government in Havana that still deems itself socialist flirting with such an alleged abuser of workers' rights?" Bustamante asked. (NACLA, Feb. 6)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, February 16.