Webcast Recap

In his new book, That Little Infernal Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution, political scientist Lars Schoultz of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, explores what he calls the "dysfunctional relationship" between the United States and Cuba. Schoultz was joined by Woodrow Wilson Center Board member Ignacio Sanchez of DLA Piper, a global legal service provider, and by Tomás Bilbao of the non-partisan Washington-based Cuba Study Group, to discuss contemporary U.S. policies toward Cuba and the domestic and international factors shaping the possibilities for a new bilateral relationship.

Lars Schoultz, the William Rand Kenan, Jr., Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, asked what the United States has been trying to accomplish in Cuba for the last fifty years. The easiest explanation, he said, is to protect three inter-related interests: the economic concerns of U.S. investors, security concerns, and the electoral concerns of U.S. politicians seeking the support of Cuban-Americans. He said that more intriguing was the ideology or underlying "mental software" underlying those interests. A first belief was that the United States could safely neglect Latin America given its relative unimportance and the United States' preponderant military and economic power. A second belief, rooted in the U.S. occupation of Cuba from 1898 to 1902, was that the United States had a responsibility for "uplifting Cuba" and Cubans, or, in Teddy Roosevelt's words, "to make them good." The third existential core of U.S. policy, Schoultz said, was a paternalistic view of Cubans as backward or "underdeveloped," incapable of solving their own problems. Schoultz referred to a 423-page report produced by President George W. Bush's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba as "uplifting on steroids," noting that the report's first and most important area had to do with selecting Cuba's new leaders for a post-Castro era. Furthermore, he ridiculed the report's statement that "proceeding…toward democratic governance" would be impossible without changes to the Cuban constitution to permit inheritance rights. Schoultz ended by comparing the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy to the Colonial Office created by the Victorian British, claiming that a healthy relationship with Latin America was difficult as long as they existed.

Ignacio Sanchez, DLA Piper attorney and Woodrow Wilson Center Board Member, noted that Cuba's republican era was short-lived, beginning in 1940 with the approval of a new constitution and ending twelve years later when Fulgencio Batista seized power. The Constitution was written by a very inclusive National Assembly and rejected the Platt Amendment, a U.S. law that specified the conditions under which the United States could intervene in Cuba's internal affairs. The new constitution provided for Cuban self-determination, Sanchez added, a concept embraced by Fidel Castro before he took power but prohibited ever since. U.S. policy towards Cuba has aimed to hold Castro to his words.

Sanchez described current U.S. policy as "highly polarized at the extremes," focusing on whether or not to lift the economic embargo, rather than on how to do so in the right manner. He expressed concern over the effects of ending the embargo on Cuba's Caribbean and Central American neighbors. From a business perspective, he argued, the issue of compensation for confiscated property—not residential property but productive enterprises owned by the state—needs to be addressed, as it was in Eastern Europe.

According to Tomás Bilbao, director of the non-partisan Cuba Study Group, U.S. policy towards Cuba has failed to generate changes inside Cuba and has isolated the United States from countries in and outside Latin America. The fixation on removing Fidel Castro has provided Cuban leaders the "threat" they need to impose authoritarian rule and has given the Cuban leadership an easy scapegoat for its own policy failures. Bilbao stated that Cuban-Americans represent an influential electoral group in the United States; however, the election of President Obama, along with opinion polls taken by Gallup and by Florida International University, demonstrate that the attitudes of the Cuban-American community are changing, particularly along generational lines. Other U.S. groups, from the agricultural lobby to the Church to former military officers, have also been supportive of a change in U.S. Cuba policy. Bilbao argued that the willingness of the United States to talk to Cuba diminishes the influence of such U.S. antagonists as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Although he warned that one should not assume that the Cuban leadership is interested in an improved relationship with the United States, Bilbao said that new leadership in the United States under Barack Obama and in Cuba under Raúl Castro provided a "window of opportunity" for a new relationship.