Should the US talk to Cuba and Raul Castro?
Posted by sanityinjection on April 17, 2009
Recently, Cuban leader Raul Castro stated publicly that he is ready for talks with the US in which all issues could be put on the table, including political prisoners and human rights. This move, something Cuba has not been willing to do before, is being viewed around the world as an overture to the US. Everyone is interested to see how the US will respond.
So far, the Obama Administration’s tone has been positive but cautious. Secretary of State Clinton characterized Castro’s statement as “welcome” and said the Administration is seriously considering how it should respond. In my view, such caution is appropriate. The US has already made a gesture toward Cuba in loosening restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba. That represents a concrete benefit for Cuba; to reciprocate simply by agreeing to talk about human rights offers the US nothing concrete in return.
To those not well versed in international relations, such tit-of-tat considerations may seem silly. What is the harm, they might ask, in simply sitting down to talk with Castro or anyone without preconditions?
Well, nothing, if you believe there is a reasonable chance of accomplishing something. However, with countries like Cuba and North Korea, it is more likely that they desire the talks for reasons of prestige and may not have any intention of coming to an agreement. This would be especially true if the talks involve a high profile such as Clinton or President Obama himself. The regimes would spin that as the US coming to kneel at the feet of their Maximum Leader. For countries such as these where the leader’s personality cult is a critical mainstay of the regime’s power, the PR they can get out of having talks with the US is in itself a victory for them, though it may seem trivial to Americans. In this case, Castro has not given any indication that he is prepared to make any real concessions on human rights.
On the other hand, the US does not want to appear to have rebuffed what looks to the world like a sincere gesture. An appropriate response would be to send mid-level State Department officials to meet with Cuban representatives at the UN in New York and see whether there is potential for some sort of agreement. This is called “back-channel” negotiation and has been used in the past with the USSR during the Cold War. Only if progress seems to be forthcoming would you want to escalate to a more high-profile public negotiation.
The US can also indicate its posture by not attempting to block the move to reinstate Cuba as a member of the Organization of American States, which it was expelled from in 1962. This move is going to succeed anyway. The US should still vote no, but it will be viewed as significant if the US does not lobby other nations to do so as well.