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Revisiting the US-Cuba Diplomatic Thaw

Revisiting the US-Cuba Diplomatic Thaw

Revisiting the US-Cuba Diplomatic Thaw

A good grasp of US-Cuba relations is elusive, often clouded by partisanship and stale Cold War logic. It then came as a great surprise when Barack Obama announced his intention to lift America’s 54-year-old embargo on Cuba. While President Obama has vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past,” breaking away from decades of isolation and hostility between the two nations, opponents like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both likely Republican presidential candidate frontrunners and both representatives from Florida, made clear their opposition: “a victory for oppressive governments the world over,” Rubio called the decision. Only “the heinous Castro brothers, who have oppressed the Cuban people for decades” will benefit, said Bush. Cuban-American Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart sulked, calling Obama an “appeaser-in-chief.”

María De Los Angeles Torres, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Ana Carbonell, managing partner of The Factor, Inc., a Miami-based political consulting firm, gathered in an event earlier this month co-hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Institute of Politics. They debated the contention that has kept Republicans and Democrats busy over the past few months: whether the United States should lift its embargo on Cuba and normalize relations with the country. The two guests, one in person and one over Skype, disagreed on most questions posed, which is, perhaps, representative of a national conversation.

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   But, encouragingly, national opinion generally supports improving US-Cuba relations, and an opinion poll in Florida demonstrates even higher levels of support. In Cuba, a fifth of the work force is private sector, citizens have unprecedented access to the Internet. All are encouraging signs that Cuba itself seeks normalized diplomatic relations.

Torres challenged logics of the embargo and leveled many of the same points used by President Obama—among them, that after 50 years, America has little to show for isolating the Cuban people. She argued that a minuscule number of diplomatic points have been conceded, relations are, as always, chilly, and few things have changed politically. This last point is important—after all, the purpose of the embargo was to topple to the Castro regime, an objective that has not come close to fruition. Most of Latin America seems to have noticed the manifest failure of the embargo and taken actions to normalize relations with Cuba long ago, a fact that has put America at diplomatic odds with those countries.

But, Carbonell pointed out, we should not usurp the Cuban people’s rights to self-determination. While this line of reasoning seems at odds with the embargo’s original goal—ridding the Cuban people of an undemocratic regime—Carbonell insisted that until all political prisoners are freed, Cubans are guaranteed the right to free association, and internationally-supervised elections are held, lifting the embargo would be unprincipled and unproductive. If borders were opened suddenly, Cuba could become a ‘capitalist-dictatorship’ cocktail like China or Vietnam, which would be, Carbonell claims, a very bad thing.

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   It would not be difficult to leave the event with the impression that this discussion was not really about Cuba. Those who support Obama cheered his latest actions and those who do not said he was “coddling a dictator.” This discussion took place between a Republican strategist and Chicago academic at the Institute of Politics—without knowing any further background, most could guess before the event with which side each speaker would align. But what will happen in the future in Washington, Havana, and Miami, is much harder to guess. With the many developments sure to come in the next few months and years, it will certainly be not only interesting to watch, but also important to stay informed.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.

How can you turn your passion into a career?

Serena Hohmann | CLAS Alum and MBA Student at Booth

During undergraduate studies, I developed a passion for Spanish-language literature. While studying abroad in Madrid, I spent afternoons in cafes, engrossed in novels.  It was there that I discovered the works of Julio Cortazar, Juan Jose Millas, Juan Rulfo, and Mario Vargas Llosa, and it was through this literature that I became fascinated by Latin American politics, society, and ingenuity.  The language gave me access to the Latin press, to movies, lectures, and, ultimately, to a completely new way of thinking.  A business internship exchange in Guadalajara following graduation allowed me not only to discover the warmth of Mexican culture, but also the complexity of Mexican politics.

Two years later, I undertook a Masters at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.  The Latin American Studies program was a perfect fit.  The caliber of Mexicanist scholars at the university coupled with access to Mexico’s academic and political heavyweights offered an excellent academic experience both in area studies and public policy.  The curriculum challenged my assumptions and taught me how to tackle complex analytical questions in subjects ranging from Mexican history to Latin American development economics.   In addition, the program offered multiple opportunities to explore a variety of career paths through seminars as well as workshops on how to effectively navigate the various application processes.  Incidentally, the university has only enhanced the breadth of career options available to students in recent years (the Institute of Politics has been critical to these efforts in the public policy space).

During graduate school, the cracks in Mexico’s criminal justice and health system became glaringly apparent to me.  While nonprofits worked tirelessly to engender a cultural shift, it seemed they had little political influence and scant resources.  Exploring models to improve legal and health service delivery in Mexico became a driving question in my research and eventually the topic of my MA Thesis.

But only days before I was scheduled to travel to Oaxaca, the site of my fieldwork, riot police injured 100 A.P.P.O. protesters.  In this politically charged environment, thousands were calling for the removal of Oaxaca’s corrupt governor, including the 15 NGOS that I was scheduled to interview.  To further complicate matters, my research plan included interviews with the state officials who were the subject of the protests.

Little did I know that these events foreshadowed the focus of my public sector career: Mexican political and security analysis.  After successfully completing the research without incident (but with some great stories), I was selected as a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF), a rotational leadership development program with the Department of State.  Now I could not only communicate the severity of Mexico’s weak security institutions to senior U.S. policymakers, but also implement large-scale initiatives to transform the capacity, transparency, and integrity of the criminal justice system.

The PMF offered unforgettable opportunities.  During my tenure, I regularly composed strategic trend analyses for the Secretary of State, assessed the security threat to Americans living and working abroad, briefed the Secretary of Transportation ahead of his visit to Mexico, performed electoral monitoring, and experienced foreign-service life at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.  Fellowship rotations offered exposure to the Inter-American Development Bank and the chance to work on a policy desk, where I collaborated with 15 Mexico experts to support the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico to successfully secure his confirmation.

After the fellowship, I was offered a programmatic position with the State Department’s foreign assistance bureau, which offered a host of fascinating challenges.  Our bureau assessed ever-changing cartel dynamics and the actions of Mexican security forces.  As a program manager for the Merida Initiative, the U.S.’s one billion dollar security program with Mexico, I worked to strengthen the rule of law and bolster Mexican judicial institutions through training and tailored procurements.  Part of my job was to craft speeches for leadership to communicate U.S. drug policies to domestic and international audiences.

Hopefully, I’ve given you a snapshot of what a foreign policy career focused on Latin America can offer.  It has certainly been an amazing learning experience and a great adventure.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.