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Three years after restoring diplomatic ties, US-Cuba relations remain strained

By Heather Yamour

WASHINGTON, June 30 (KUNA) -- Three years after the historic resumption of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, escalating pressure and rhetoric between the Trump administration and the new Miguel Diaz-Canel government portends a rough road ahead for US-Cuba relations. At a meeting in Washington in mid-June, US officials pressed a Cuban delegation on its concerns about a mysterious illness that has plagued 25 diplomats at the American embassy in Havana.
Months earlier, the US cited the so-called "sonic attacks" in its decision to withdraw 60 percent of its diplomats from Cuba, and to expel 17 Cuban embassy officials. During the Seventh Bilateral Commission meeting, the Cuban delegation led by Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, Director of US Affairs at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, urged the US to "desist from the continued political manipulation of the alleged health cases," charging the US has used it as a pretext to adopt a new policy that affects both embassies and consular services, including visa processing.
The scaling-back of the US embassy staff coupled with a travel warning recommending Americans to reconsider travel to Cuba has had significant effects for Cuba's economy and its citizens. In the first three months of 2018, American tourism to the island nation was 56.6 percent of what it was the year before, a hard blow to Cuba's burgeoning private-sector industry. Cuba described bilateral relations with the US as having hit "a setback" following President Donald Trump's reversal of several of former President Barack Obama's policies aimed at normalizing ties. Obama had vowed to "cut loose the shackles of the past" following over 50 years of distrust and antagonism between the two countries divided by just 90 miles of water. Months into office, Trump reinstated travel and trade restrictions eased by his predecessor and said the US would not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it freed all political prisoners, held free and fair elections and made other fundamental changes. A move backed by many in the Republican party, including Cuban-American Senator and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio who pushed for stiffer measures including putting the Cuban government back on the state sponsors of terrorism list.
The leader of the strong anti-Castro faction in the US, Rubio called on the White house to "denounce Castro's successor [Diaz-Canel] as illegitimate in the absence of free, fair and multiparty elections." In April, Rubio accompanied to the Summit of the Americas Vice President Mike Pence, who declared Cuba a "despotic regime" and blamed it for exporting its "failed ideology across a wider region" like Venezuela. Pence caused a stir when he immediately walked out of the session as Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez prepared to deliver an angry rebuttal.
The Trump administration has also appointed foreign policy hardliners like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom openly opposed Obama's decision to "pursue direct diplomacy" with Cuba. A decision that experts say will likely scale back rapprochement between the two sides.
Diaz-Canel, who in April replaced Raul Castro as president of Cuba after sixty years of Castro rule, and now faces the challenge of enacting economic reform "is not likely to get any relief" from the US, says Scott MacDonald, a scholar at the Centers of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "The appointment of foreign policy conservatives, such as Bolton and Pompeo, probably portends a further hardening of measures against Cuba." "[The Trump administration's] policy toward Cuba is being guided by a desire to isolate and coerce changes from the government," says Columbia University's Christopher Sabatini. "As long as US policy is driven largely by hardliners, the embargo won't be lifted no matter who's in power." American business leaders and bipartisan lawmakers have urged Trump to maintain the detente, warning it could worsen the economic and political situation in Cuba. Experts also say the deteriorating relations adds pressure on Cuba to turn to China at a time of emerging strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. "The fact that we are giving them (Russia and China) a free hand to extend their presence is not in the US national interest," said William LeoGrande, Professor of Government at American University and a specialist in Latin American politics and US foreign policy.
China is expected to play a wider role in the changes to Cuba's economy. As its biggest trading partner, accounting for USD 1.8 billion in exports last year, Cuba "looks to China as a "revolutionary" ally and important economic supporter of the regime," says Macdonald. "For it's part, China regards Cuba as an ally with a great geostrategic location." (end) hy.gta