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Will a wrecked Cuban economy — and record Cuban migration — revive U.S.-Cuba engagement?

Ramón Espinosa
Associated Press
File Photo - Airport workers receive the first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba in more than a half century, in Santa Clara, Cuba, in 2016. The Trump administration banned U.S. flights to all Cuban cities except Havana 2019.

For the past five years, U.S.-Cuba relations have been all but frozen. But circumstances may be moving things back toward cooperation.

The Biden administration wants to reduce the record number of Cuban migrants arriving at the U.S. southern border. But that won't happen unless Cuba's wrecked economy improves… which really can't happen without U.S. help… which really won't happen until Cuba's communist regime stops human rights violations, like imprisoning people for anti-government protests.

Former Miami Congressman Joe Garcia is at the head of a new effort to promote U.S.-Cuba engagement. Garcia, a Cuban-American Democrat, spoke with WLRN Americas editor Tim Padgett about the challenges it faces.

PADGETT: So, Congressman, you were recently at a conference in Havana to see how serious the Cuban regime is about letting the private sector grow — especially the pymes (pequeñas y medianas empresas), the small and medium-sized enterprises that are now legal on the island. Should Americans consider investing in them?

GARCIA: Yes. First, there are more people participating: last year there were 6 to 10 pymes — now there are over 5,000. I wanted to see how favorable the Cuban regime is to the concept. And, you know, there were good parts and bad parts.

There was a speech by the deputy economic planning minister [Johanna Odriozola], which was pretty impressive, laying out where they were, how the pymes are constituted and in what areas of the economy. And then there was a presentation from the Foreign Ministry, which spent 35 minutes attacking the embargo — and then they spoke about the pymes to say, “We're not going to let these private enterprises interfere with our state enterprises or drive a wedge between the state and the Cuban people," all that sort of thing.

Here [in the U.S.] you certainly wouldn't give that speech when you’re inviting people to make investments. But this is hard stuff for a communist regime.

READ MORE: Both sides in Cuba debate agree: Biden's engagement with the island won't be Obama's

Right. And the regime played that good cop-bad cop routine again this month. A delegation of U.S. diplomats visited Havana to discuss immigration, and Cuban officials did agree to again start receiving Cuban migrants deported from the U.S. But then they ruined the moment by arresting the family members of political prisoners who tried to meet with those U.S. diplomats.

They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It was destructive. All signals were pointing that they wanted to engage. They were headed in the right direction — and they do this kind of thing. So either they don't get it, or [Cuban President Miguel] Díaz-Canel is not in control of the state of Cuba.

I should note that last week, Díaz-Canel was visiting allies like China and Russia to see if he could get new economic lifelines from them. But you say you got to talk to Díaz-Canel when you were in Havana — and you say you urged him to release Cuba's political prisoners?

Yes. When he finished his speech, he spoke to a few people and he walked up to me. And, you know, we had a very frank conversation. I said that I thought what they were doing on the pymes front was good, now you should just push so it gets done and don't let people get in the way.

The Cuban regime never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. I told President Díaz-Canel he won't be able to deal with anything else until he deals with political prisoners and releases them.
Joe Garcia

And then I said, “Look, this political prisoner issue has to be dealt with. This is harming the nation. You're not going to be able to deal with anybody or anything else until you deal with this." And I said I, as a Cuban-American, can help facilitate them getting interviewed at the U.S. embassy when they are released. So if they want to come as refugees to the United States, I'm sure that can be worked out, especially now that the embassy is re-opened.

“But you should realize that you can't do anything without us — without the accumulated power of the Cuban-American community. It’s too much to be ignored.”

How did Díaz-Canel respond?

Former Miami Congressman Joe Garcia
Roberto Koltun
El Nuevo Herald
Former Miami Congressman Joe Garcia

He just said, “Look, these are difficult things, but I'm more than happy to talk about them at another occasion. And I said, “You're the president of the country. But I think it's a huge mistake not to release the prisoners, especially the thousand people they put in prison this past year for nothing more than anti-government protesting.”

But they feel like they have cards to play because they know the U.S. can't afford to have hundreds of thousands more Cuban migrants show up at our southern border in the next 12 months. Then again, this mass migration is bleeding Cuba of its young people. The island's turning into one of the oldest countries in Latin America.

That's interesting what you said to him about the Cuban-American community, because these days it seems to want no engagement with the Cuban regime at all. But Martin Palouš, a former Czech leader who helped bring down communism in Europe, just wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald urging Cuban exiles to talk to the regime if they want to see change in Cuba.

This is a guy who is one of the cardinals of the human rights movement and democracy in Europe. Palouš is aware that in these situations, if you don't engage, you leave it to others to decide the destiny of those who are suffering oppression.

And I should mention that Palouš heads the human rights program at Florida International University here in Miami.

Right. He knows our community, and he also knows the limits of sitting in the Versailles [restaurant in Little Havana] drinking coffee and screaming at the top of our lungs. He knows that we have to find the solutions that make the daily lives of Cubans better.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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