June 28, 2013
Matthew Aho, Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor
Question: U.S. and Cuban diplomats plan to resume bilateral talks on migration issues during a meeting in Washington on July 17. News of the migration talks came after the two countries held a round of discussions on resuming direct mail service. How much progress are the old Cold War foes making on rapprochement? Can any significant thaw happen while Alan Gross and four members of the "Cuban Five" remain in prison? What is at stake for businesses in the United States and elsewhere?
"It speaks volumes about the dismal state of U.S.-Cuba relations when, nearly a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, talks on the resumption of postal service is considered 'progress.' Yet the tone of June talks on precisely this issue was described as a 'sea change' by U.S. officials and appears to have laid groundwork for further discussions on more complicated issues.
Talking about mail may not sound like much, but contact between similarly high-ranking officials hasn't occurred since before the 2009 arrest of Alan Gross when they were also discussing (you guessed it) mail. Since 2010, Cuba has insisted it will only release Mr. Gross via a quid pro quo exchange involving one or more of the 'Cuban Five', a prospect Washington has rejected, resulting in stalemate.
So the scheduled talks are significant because they are happening at all, and both parties appear to have concluded that three more years of non-dialogue is unacceptable, notwithstanding Mr. Gross. This is welcome news. But real progress will require political will at the White House, of which there is little evidence.
Since 2009, Cuba has released political prisoners; granted its citizens greater freedom of movement; liberalized rules on car and home sales; allowed greater private economic activity; and announced term limits on political offices, including the presidency—all steps consistent with U.S. interests. The concurrent U.S. response has been chirping crickets.
There are clear incentives to stop talking past each other during upcoming talks. The end of Cuban exit visas lends new urgency to migration issues; uncertainty regarding Venezuelan oil subsidies arose the same year that U.S.-Cuba remittance flows topped $2 billion; Cuba bought $476 million of U.S. farm exports in 2012, which could double amidst more normal relations. What's more, some confidence-building steps could finally remove the biggest stumbling block of the last few years: Mr. Gross' long-awaited release.
But for now, it's 'Back to the Future' on postal talks."
Originally published in the June 27, 2013 issue of the Inter-American Dialogue's Latin American Advisor newsletter: http://www.thedialogue.org/latin_america_advisor_newsletters
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