Interviewed by Nick Garver.

WASHINGTON, DC – As anyone familiar with Cuba knows, the nation remains an anomaly in the Western Hemisphere. While some Latin American nations have questionable democratic practices, Cuba remains the only country in the region that does not hold elections, a litmus test for democracy. Furthermore, the Castro regime has an atrocious record when it comes to freedom of speech, jailing of dissidents, and economic liberty. Raúl Castro has taken some baby steps towards opening up the economy, but his reforms are not enough to suggest that Cuba will transition to a free society anytime soon.

However, Cuba has remained under the stranglehold of the brothers Castro for the past 50 years, despite the US’s imposition of one of the strictest sanctions regimes it has against any country. A hard-liner community in the United States insists that isolating Cuba is the best approach; any economic or political engagement may both empower the regime and recognize its legitimacy. It’s hard to argue against punishing the Cuban government, especially when the Cuban people have suffered so much because of it.

Nevertheless, we’re not in the 1960s anymore and opinion on the issue isn’t uniform, even among Cuban-Americans. A growing group advocates for a more strategic approach to the Cuba issue instead of the status quo. Included in this group is Tomas Bilbao, Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking earlier this week. Prior to joining the Cuba Study Group, Mr. Bilbao was Deputy Director of Operations at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Personal Aide to Secretary Mel Martinez from 2001 to 2003 in the George W. Bush administration. He then served as Director of Operations for Mel Martinez for U.S. Senate and Director of Transition for Senator-elect Mel Martinez. In his role at the Cuba Study Group, he oversees all the group’s projects and activities, such as developing policy recommendations and educating congress and the executive branch on the issue.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation:

Why was the Cuba Study Group formed and how does it differ from other groups advocating on foreign policy towards Cuba?

Well as you know from the history of the exile community, the groups were initially organized as a way to pressure the US government in response to Cuban human rights violations, misappropriations of property, etc. What makes the Cuba Study Group a little different is that it was born out of a desire to change the dynamics that the founders of the organization saw as a failure to respond in a strategic way to the Cuban government’s actions.

And so when the Elian Gonzalez controversy hit, the founders of the group saw that the Cuban-American community was again falling into the traditional trap that the Cuban government benefits from: riling up the exile community and basically getting them to swing at every one of Fidel’s pitches and missing.

And so they organized the Cuba Study Group with the purpose of responding in a strategic way to the Cuban dilemma in a way that helps facilitate change by focusing on helping the Cuban people, rather than the traditional focus of obsessing with hurting the Cuba regime.

Where does your expertise and passion for the issue come from?

The passion comes from growing up in Venezuela at a time when the supposed models of democracy were falling apart because of the failures of the system there. And having a deep passion for democracy and social justice and especially in Latin America where, of course, Cuba has always been the exception in the last half century. So for that reason, I was always passionate about it but my interest or experience was more a result of my time working on the Senate campaign of then-Secretary [of Housing and Urban Development] Mel Martinez.

My father, who’s Cuban, left before the revolution. And I don’t think we’ve ever had a conversation about Cuba. And remember, he left before the revolution. He didn’t leave for a political reason or anything, he just left because my grandfather had business in Venezuela.

What is the biggest obstacle in effecting change in US policy towards Cuba?

The biggest problem is that the nation of Cuba is a very low-priority issue in the United States. The only people for whom it is a number-one priority are those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in US policy towards the island. And so, as with anything in policy, when the only people who are interested in the policy are the ones who are interested in maintaining it, it becomes very, very difficult to change. Until Cuba becomes a priority issue for more than a small group of hard-line Cuban-American members of congress, it will be very difficult to change congressional policy for now.

In February, the Cuba Study Group released a paper called “Restoring the Executive Authority Over US policy Towards Cuba.” Among the recommendations therein is the de-codification of the Helms Burton Act. President Clinton signed this bill, which made it illegal for the President to lift the embargo without congressional approval, in the election year of 1996. A number of scholars have challenged the constitutionality of this self-imposed restriction on executive authority. Do you have an opinion on this constitutional issue or the likelihood that the courts would overturn it?

Well, you know, I’m not a constitutional lawyer. In fact, I’m not even a lawyer. So I wouldn’t venture into the potential success of such a suit, but I think these things can always be helpful as we saw this last week.

What I think is important is to work on all fronts to encourage the president to take further steps that are within his purview, to educate members of congress as to the benefits of breaking the isolation between the United States and Cuba, and of course there is always a role for the courts.

We saw just this year some very onerous and counter-productive legislation passed by the Florida legislature that was struck down by the courts of Florida. David Rivera, when he was a member in the state house in Florida, helped enact a series of laws that, in his view, were geared towards denying resources to the Cuban regime; in reality,  these laws were just a continuation hard-line policy at the federal level. One of those laws prohibited the state of Florida from contracting with any businesses who have business interests in Cuba. I believe this all started with a contact for a tunnel in Miami by a French company. The appeals courts just struck down that law.

He also helped pass laws that made it impossible for the state’s educational institutions to expend any public or private money in transactions involving Cuba, meaning academic exchanges, conferences, or anything involving any Cuban nationals. FIU, for example, can no longer do conferences where they invite Cuban academics to attend. The University of Miami or the University of Florida can no longer travel to Cuba for academic research using state or private funds.

It’s another way of imposing a travel ban as had been done at the federal level with family, cultural, religious, and academic exchanges during the Bush administration. Since the Obama administration had changed it at the federal level, Rivera and his colleagues in the state house tried to impose those at the state level. The academic restriction still stands, by the way.

Part of that same paper the Cuba Study Group released in February recommends review of Cuba’s designation is a state sponsor of terror. Can you elaborate on why the Cuba Study Group proposes a new look at this issue?

The Cuba Study Group has called in that paper for an apolitical and thorough review of Cuba as a location for state-sponsored terrorism. Over the years we have seen an eroding case for Cuba’s continuing inclusion on the list. To the point where, this year, no evidence is provided that would support Cuba’s continuing inclusion on the list. Harboring US fugitives is not a reason for inclusion as a state-sponsor of terrorism. There’s the case that was made earlier about supporting members of the Basque separatist group ETA. We’ve learned, in recent years, not only that are a lot of those folks there at the request of the Spanish and French governments, but also that France has no sanctions on Cuba because of the presence of those people in the island.

The eroding case makes it imperative that the United States [reconsider Cuba’s status on the list], not just to maintain credibility when it comes to fighting the global war on terrorism, but also because the inclusion of Cuba, far from imposing any additional sanctions that would be hurtful for the regime, only serves as yet another scapegoat for the Cuban government, another irritant in relations between the two countries. If you were to lift it it wouldn’t necessarily lift sanctions, but it would take away important irritants to potential bilateral relations between countries.

The media often overstates the long-term impact of such scandals but I have to ask about you know what. Do you anticipate the Edward Snowden-PRISM scandal will damage America’s credibility in advocating internet freedom in Cuba?

Obviously, I think it can have an impact on US credibly in relations; you saw the statement by European Union spokesperson last week. I think it will affect US credibility as it relates to its relationships with its allies and as an advocate for human rights, openness , and transparency in government.

But when it comes to Cuba specifically, I don’t anticipate that it will necessarily have a negative impact. And that’s because Cuban leaders generally make decisions about reforms or changes that are pro-government, based not on what the US does or fails to do, but on what it perceives as its own interests.

Related to that, most dissidents within Cuba oppose elements of the embargo like the technology restrictions, correct?

I haven’t taken a poll of dissidents, but I can tell you that statements [from many dissidents] in one way or another, whether directly referring to the embargo or not, have made it clear that the broad unilateral sanctions that comprise the embargo do in fact contribute to the isolation imposed by the Cuban government on its own people. So far from starving the Cuban government or from empowering civil society, broadening the net of the US sanctions contributes to the isolation that benefits the Cuban regime.

These seem like pretty sound arguments . What is the most common response you get from hard-liners, most notably hard-line Cuban-Americans in congress, that we shouldn’t ease up sanctions? What is the other side?

The counter argument used by hard-liners is effective when presented to folks with little knowledge or little interest in Cuba; it’s a very easy selling point to say the Cuban government is bad, it represses its own people, therefore we need to punish it. And that simplistic logical makes sense to folks who are unfamiliar with Cuba. You have to remember that those espousing those points of view—the members of congress who do that—are also folks who have never traveled to Cuba in their entire life or even during the last 50 years; they lack the knowledge of the realities of Cuba on the ground.

That being said, these simplistic arguments begin to erode as people have more access to Cuba and more access to people inside Cuba. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons why hard-liners have fought tooth-and-nail to curtail any type of travel to the island and from the island. They realize that, as isolation is broken, it not only undermines the status quo in Cuba but it undermines the status quo in the United States.

Were you just implying there that breaking the isolation undermines their reason to be in politics?

I was not implying, I was specifically stating that it undermines their interest in maintaining current US policy towards Cuba.

The mission statement of the Cuba Study Group lists reconciliation as a goal. Should Cuba be fortunate enough to transition to a free society they advocate a truth commission akin to others done in democratic transitions in Latin America as a way to account for the human rights violations of the Castro regime? If so, should Cubans themselves be involved or should the international community, such as the UN or the OAS, get involved?

With regards to our reconciliation project, we’ve been examining and learning from the experiences of other countries. In our first conference last year that was held at Miami Community College, we were fortunate enough to have the South African ambassador to the United States, who was the closest collaborator of Nelson Mandela, talking about the experience of reconciliation in apartheid South Africa. We also had a member of the parliament of Ireland who spoke about the Northern Ireland experience.

And what we’ve learned there is that there is no one solution to fix all of these problems and that it’s better to focus on the future rather than the past. We don’t discount and we should never ignore the pain that all sides have suffered in these situations. And it’s important to start by recognizing that everybody has a reason to claim victimhood or suffering at one time or another. But the way to move forward is focusing on what we want to achieve together and not necessarily our grievances of past behavior.

There may be a place for some type of mechanism to look at to look at grievances from all sides that have occurred in the past, but I think that that will be up to all Cubans and not one particular group of Cubans to decide in the future.

When you talk to younger Cuban-Americans, do you see a generational shift in attitudes towards the regime, or is it divided along those who actually studied the issue or traveled to Cuba?

The Cuba Study Group actually began by doing all kinds of polling to demonstrate the diversity of thought within the exile community and of course that includes young Cuban-Americans, young Cubans living in the United States, as well as other groups within that segment. Also, older Cubans and college educated Cubans, as well as others.

I think that the main point isn’t that there is a changing attitude towards the regime, because I think by and large those who have come to the United States recognize the failures of the regime. I think what makes the changing dynamics of the exile community unique is the changing attitude toward the Cuban people.

That means that, whereas older generations who no longer have family on the island are more willing to advocate for isolation or a pressure cooker approach towards Cuba, those who have traveled there or still have family on the island and those who recognize the failure of 50 years of bad policies in the United States are less willing to advocate for isolation. So we see generational changes, not only because young people perhaps aren’t burdened by the passion of having lived through the experience, but also because these are people who understand that in a global world, there is an interest in returning to your roots and helping people who look and sound like you and are maybe around your age even if you’ve never met them.

And so it’s not just a generational change. I think it’s a change across the board including in the older generations who are tired of a policy that hasn’t worked and who are willing to try out something different, such as prioritizing helping the Cuban people over hurting the Cuban regime.

You’ve frequently emphasized that US policy towards Cuba is largely shaped by people who have never been to Cuba within the last 50 years. I myself went there on an academic trip in 2004, about week before the Bush administration raised restrictions and thus banned such trips. Do you think the travel restrictions in the second half of the Bush administration rolled back the clock on change in policy towards Cuba?

Having been a member of the Bush administration and having been intimately familiar with some of those conversations regarding the restrictions, I can tell you that they were nothing but counterproductive; they responded to a political motivation of a very small, local, hard-liner minority in the exile community.

They made helping Cuban dissidents, and Cuban society as a whole, more difficult. They also added to the Cuban government’s long list of scapegoat talking points where they could blame the US government for all its failures. But more importantly, [the US did this] at a time when Cuba was making a decision on how to get out of the Special Period and when Hugo Chavez was offering to be a savior by making Cuba completely dependent on Venezuela. The United States missed out on a huge strategic opportunity to break isolation between the two countries, to assist civil society directly with people-to-people contact and to make Cuba more dependent on the US and less dependent on Venezuela; what we ended up doing was the exactly the opposite. We made it more difficult for dissidents to gain access to resources, we made it more difficult for Cubans to learn about the outside world and for Americans to learn about Cuba, and we made it less likely that Cubans inside the island would become less dependent on the Cuban government. In fact, Bush administration policies almost ensured that Cubans would remain dependent on the regime.

So I take it that you think that it was right for the Obama administration to lift these restrictions. What other steps can the president take without approval from congress to make the situation better?

You alluded to our paper on restoring the executive authority where we outline 11 specific steps the president can take to continue to empower the society of Cuba and facilitate giant change inside the island. There is also an important memo by a lawyer named Stephen Propst from the lawfirm Hogan Lovells that provides the legal argument for all these steps the president can take under his executive authority. Brookings and the Council of the Americas have issued similar recommendations, which can be an additional guideline for steps the president can take. President Obama is well aware of the steps he can take. All that’s missing is the political will to do so.

The first term of the Obama administration was characterized by very important steps, especially in regards to breaking the isolation between the two countries and creating a mechanism to support Cuba’s growing independent small business community.

Unfortunately, political considerations have gotten in the way of the president continuing to move on his commitment to help Cuban civil society; in some instances, it was even rolled back. Some are celebrating the resumption of postal and regulatory talks, which have already been reinstated by the Obama administration prior to Alan Gross being detained. So, we’ve only now made it back to what was one of the starting points of the first term of the Obama administration. So there’s still much more the president can do. And we’ve outlined some steps that we believe would help people continue to help their families on the island but also, more specifically, to continue to empower the growing small business community on the island because we believe that the solution to Cuba’s problems begins by providing Cubans with a way to improve the lives of their families without dependence on the Cuban government.

If there is one overarching theme here, it’s that we need to get away from a policy that obsesses solely on hurting the Cuban government and replace it with one that obsesses with helping the Cuban people. If you obsess with hurting the Cuban government, you may or may not win. If you obsess with helping the Cuban people, you will always win.

Tomas Bilbao is the Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, DC. 

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Comments 1-2 of 2

  • Nicolas Oliva

    08/07/2013 06:25 AM

    I enjoyed reading this interview, and appreciate the research and efforts of the Cuba Study Group.

    One area I would like to know more about regarding legislation is what is being done to prevent the situation from becoming even worse. My concern is that because the issue is a low-priority one for most, and a high-priority one for a few, that the few will once again use all of their leverage to contaminate the present immigration reform efforts with more "hurting the Cuban government" legislation.

    Are the watchdogs being careful to ensure that negotiations for votes in the House don't use the Cuban people as bargaining chips?

  • Jorge Olondo

    07/06/2013 03:30 PM

    How do we organize and move forward from here?

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7/3/13 Current Record