In light of recent developments in the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Cuba, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs corresponded with Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the U.S. Department of State, to discuss the anticipated normalization process.
GJIA: What is the current timeline for re-establishing relations with Cuba?
RJ: The re-establishment of diplomatic relations and re-opening of embassies will allow us to better represent U.S. interests and increase our engagement with the Cuban people. Conversations with the Cuban government are on going, and they will continue until we work out a way forward that both serves U.S. interests and ensures that our embassy can operate in a normal manner. It is important to remember that what we are discussing with Cuba right now —the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of embassies — is the first step in a process of normalization that will ultimately take years.
GJIA: What are the most important political considerations for the U.S. government, as it moves forward in this process?
RJ: Our objective has been and continues to be to empower the Cuban people to freely determine their own future. Our previous approach, though rooted in the best of intentions, has had little effect after half a century. This new approach is designed to bring about a dialogue between the U.S. and the Cuban people, thus promoting changes that support universal human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba, as well as our other national interests.
GJIA: What does the Cuban government hope to achieve by normalizing its relationship with the U.S.?
RJ: We are currently discussing matters of mutual concern, including migration, law enforcement, civil aviation, access to information, environmental protection, human rights, health issues, and trafficking in persons.
When I led the U.S. delegation to Havana in January, I was moved by the many Cubans — from people on the plane to people in the street — who spontaneously came up to us to give us their blessings and wish us good luck in the negotiations. I also just saw a recent poll that shows that the majority of the Cuban people support re-establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S. So there is a collective will to normalize our relationship as well.
GJIA: What are the greatest challenges in re-establishing ties with the country?
RJ: As I mentioned before, both the U.S. and Cuban governments are working together on areas of mutual interest. That being said, we have different views of how society should be organized and issues on which we deeply disagree. President Obama was direct with President Castro that we are not going to stop raising the issues of democracy and human rights, including the freedom of assembly and the freedom of expression. We do not think we are perfect or that every country has to mimic us, but there are a set of universal commitments for which we stand up everywhere. As the President also pointed out, the previous policy of isolation did not advance the goals and interests of United States citizens, nor did it advance those of the Cuban people. Re-establishing diplomatic relations and re-opening embassies will advance our interests and also more effectively engage the Cuban people on our core values.
GJIA: How do you envision the process of Cuba’s economic re-integration playing out, if it does so at all?
RJ: The Cuban government is responsible for the direction of Cuba’s economy. Though we have seen some small changes in it over the last few years, we are taking steps to aid this process. President Obama’s new approach helps Cuba’s nascent private sector by permitting Americans to send unlimited remittances to individual Cubans in order to better support private businesses and independent non-governmental organizations, and to engage in certain microfinance activities, entrepreneurial training, and development projects in Cuba under general licenses. This new approach allows for increased telecommunication connections between the United States and Cuba. Also, U.S. companies are permitted to export items such as building materials, equipment, tools, and supplies for use by the Cuban private sector. The President called on Congress to begin the work of lifting the embargo this year.
GJIA: What role will the State Department play in attempting to mitigate these challenges moving forward?
RJ: We want to deepen our interaction with a much broader segment of Cuban society. As an embassy, our mission in Havana will be to even more effectively represent U.S. interests, as our engagement with the Cuban people increases. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana already provides consular services to both Americans and Cubans, speaks out on universal human rights, works to ensure safe, orderly, and legal migration, supports cultural, educational, and sports exchanges, and encourages greater access to information about the United States and in general for all Cubans. But with an embassy, we hope to further expand our interaction with Cuban officials and the Cuban people.
GJIA: What impact has the Cuban Human Rights Act (2015) had on U.S. federal laws regarding sanctions toward the country and human rights violations in Cuba? Does Cuba have a plan in place to quell these violations?
RJ: We understand that the Cuban Human Rights Act has been introduced in the House and referred to the House Committee on Foreign Relations. Our commitment to universal human rights in Cuba is unwavering. We condemn all instances of Cuban government-sponsored harassment, the use of violence, and the arbitrary detention of Cuban citizens that peacefully exercise their rights of expression or assembly. We will continue to speak out on behalf of universal values in Cuba and elsewhere in the world.
Roberta Jacobson is the current Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. She previously served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs from December 2010 until July 2011 with a specific focus on regional political and economic, management and personnel, and regional security issues. She also was the Coordinator for Cuban Affairs within the Bureau. In addition to her roles at the Department of State, she worked for the United Nations from 1982 to 1984 in the Center for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs.
Marisa Hawley corresponded with Assistant Secretary Jacobson by email on May 4, 2015. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.