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U.S.-Cuba Relations: The Beginning of a Long Thaw?

09/23/2009 4:30 PM Wong Auditorium
Julia Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow For Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Wayne Smith, Senior Fellow and Director of the Cuba Program, Center for International Policy

Description: To the dismay of these seasoned Cuba specialists, the Obama administration is not pursuing a rapid thaw in relations with the Castro regime. While there appears no speedy end to 50 years of icy antipathy toward Cuba, the speakers detect a few hopeful signs of warming in recent times.

Wayne Smith has seen opportunities for a real bilateral relationship come and go. He first went to Cuba in 1958, just before the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations. He was among the first to go back in 1977 when Jimmy Carter attempted to reopen channels for discussion. Smith left the foreign service in 1982 after Reagan was elected, and had great hopes that Clinton would soften the U.S. stance following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Cuban exiles in the U.S. succeeded in retaining a hard"line policy against Cuba. Smith says, "Here we are again: another opportunity." It's in the best interest of the U.S., says Smith, to begin "a mature relationship" with Cuba. He thinks the window is open a crack now. He knows many Cuban"Americans whose families lost property, or had relatives imprisoned, and "50 years later have come around to say, it's time to begin talking."

We may be entering "an interesting period of change" following a half century of "abnormal, unnatural relations," says Julia Sweig. A few years ago, on the heels of Fidel Castro's illness, Cuba initiated a "significant reform agenda." In a record"short (34 minute) inaugural speech, Castro's appointed successor, brother Raul, "implied awareness of the intense unhappiness on the island," announcing proposed internal travel freedoms, and discussing agrarian and currency reform. "He sounded often more like Margaret Thatcher than Karl Marx," says Sweig. But this fledgling effort to expand opportunities for Cubans was derailed in 2008 by three devastating hurricanes, the collapse of world commodity and financial markets, and Fidel Castro's recovery (he's "notoriously allergic to the market," Sweig says).

There is some reason for optimism beyond Cuba. Sweig perceives a major shift in public opinion among Cuban"Americans, especially the young cohort that helped vote in Obama. There's a prevailing sense that the embargo has failed, and that America should completely lift its travel ban. And the Obama administration has indicated a slight softening toward Cuba, permitting family remittances, and signaling that it might allow American telecom companies to do business in Cuba.

Sweig believes "this glacial, almost like walking through peanut butter pace of change that we have in bilateral relations suits each government just fine." She concludes with a genuine bright spot: the September '09 Havana concert by Colombian musician Juanes, which demonstrated that the U.S. and Cuba can have meaningful contact with each other "without governments getting in the way."

About the Speaker(s): Julia E. Sweig is the author of Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2009), and Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti"American Century,/i> (PublicAffairs, 2006), as well as numerous publications on Latin America and American foreign policy. She has directed several Council on Foreign Relations reports on Latin America. Sweig's Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground (Harvard University Press, 2002) received the American Historical Association's Herbert Feis Award for best book of the year by an independent scholar.

Sweig serves on the International Advisory Board of the Brazilian Center for International Relations (CEBRI), on the editorial board of Foreign Affairs Latinoam_rica, and from 1999"2008, served as a consultant on Latin American affairs for The Aspen Institute's Congressional Program. She frequently provides commentary for the major television, radio, and print media, speaking in both English and Spanish. She holds a B.A. from the University of California and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Wayne Smith is also a visiting professor of Latin American Studies and Director of the University of Havana exchange Program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He is a former Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. During his twenty"five years with the State Department (1957"82), he served as executive secretary of President Kennedy's Latin American Task Force and chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. In addition, he served in Argentina, Brazil and the Soviet Union.

Smith's most recent book is The Russians Aren't Coming: New Soviet Policy in Latin America (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992), of which he is the editor. His other works include Portrait of Cuba (Turner Publishing, 1991); Toward Resolution: The Falklands/Malvinas Dispute (Lynne Rienner, 1991), again as an editor; and The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of the Castro Years (W.W. Norton of New York City, 1987). He was also the co"editor, along with Esteban Morales, of Subject to Solution: Problems in Cuban"U.S. Relations (Lynne Rienner, 1988), which won the Critic award in 1989 as one of the best academic books reviewed that year.

He received his university education at La Universidad de las Americas in Mexico City from which he holds a B.A. and an M.A. (summa cum laude), at Columbia University in New York City, from which he holds another M.A., and at George Washington University in Washington D.C., where he received a third M.A. and a Ph.D. In 1990, Smith received the Henry L. Cain Most Distinguished Alumnus award from La Universidad de las Americas.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Center for International Studies

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