In an exclusive sit-down interview with LPO, former Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the United States Department of State, Arturo Valenzuela, discussed the current situation in Cuba, the importance of the Latino vote in the upcoming midterms elections, and President Joe Biden's foreign policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean.
When asked about the United States' response towards the situation in Cuba, the Emeritus Professor at Georgetown University said, "President Joe Biden hasn't had the opportunity to draft a new Cuba policy, but objectively it should be the same as Obama's."
"It's not about strengthening the government, but to pursue a policy that establishes a direct relationship with the Cuban people," he added.
In 2016, former President Barack Obama moved aggressively to restore economic relations with Cuba, implementing a number of changes that included easing of restrictions on the island in an attempt to create more economic opportunities between the two countries.
Valenzuela, who served in the Obama administration with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, does not believe that the United Sates will lift the embargo towards the island.
In March 2016, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since the 1959 Castro revolution, opening a new chapter in relations between Havana and Washington. This shift was reversed when Donald Trump came into office.
"The question is how to give more power to the Cuban people, by establishing commercial relations, for example, with a network of small business owners or establishments that may be in the hands of the private sector," Valenzuela added. "By doing this, you are not violating the embargo, because you are not dealing directly with the state."
As a scholar and specialist on the consolidation of democracy and regime transitions, Valenzuela believes there could be an opportunity for political change.
"In Cuba there are the extremists [in the regime] and the more moderate ones, and what tends to happen in regime transitions is that the more moderate leaders in the government stand out," he explained. "If the United States can identify some of these trends to see if by making some sort of agreement with the soft-liners, it can achieve its basic goals, which are to empower the Cuban people. This can mean, at times, making certain agreements with the Cuban government. It's the politics of soft and hard power."
Additionally, Valenzuela said it will be "easier" to negotiate with the government of Manuel DĂaz-Canel than it would been with the Castro brothers, with moderates on the island looking "for something different."
"Now you have organizations that are playing a supporting role for these moderates and for the Cuban people as well," he said. "Because of the changes the country has undergone, there are more opportunities for success. The objective is not to do something different from Obama's policies, but to build on them at a time when there seems to be more than one opportunity for them to be successful."
In terms of the Cuban American community in Florida, Doctor Valenzuela stated, "the Miami-Dade County is not the United States. It is not correct to think that the entire Cuban American community will vote like Senator Marco Rubio wants. There are those who want to be able to send funds to the island and travel to Cuba to see loved ones. That's the balance that the Biden government has to grapple with."
President Biden's response to Cuba includes measures to bring increased internet access to the island and calls for more international pressure on the totalitarian government, as well imposing sanctions on the Cuban regime. The White House is also reviewing the U.S.' remittance policy and looking to restaff the U.S. embassy in Havana to provide consular services.
As a member of the executive committee of the board of directors of the National Council of La Raza (now UNIDOS/USA) and the Hispanic Council for International Relations, Valenzuela argues that Latino voters face threats to their right to vote.
"There's no question that in communities where there is a significant number of Latinos citizens may have difficulty voting, like many other working-class communities," he said. "In the United States it's quite exceptional that a country would hold elections on Tuesdays. Most places hold elections on Sundays because they want to make sure that people who vote can do so without it interfering with their jobs. Many of these constituencies have two or three jobs."
Republicans, he added, are making a "deliberate effort" to make it difficult for people do that, saying that "these measures are clearly aimed at trying to get these communities not to vote."
Many provisions currently being pushed by Republican state lawmakers make it harder to cast a ballot in a certain way - such as by mailing in the ballot, placing it in a drop box. In many instances, they are endorsing unnecessary procedural obstacles to disqualify voters for no specific reason.
"The GOP is definitely worried about Latino turnout because otherwise they wouldn't be trying to make it much more difficult for people to vote. I think they're correct in thinking that the people they're trying to stop from voting would not vote for them. What they're doing is motivating voters, like in Georgia, that were not motivated at all before to go out and vote", Valenzuela said.
US Foreign Policy towards Latin America
The recent crises in Latin America have forced the White House to focus on the region more broadly after years of limited attention from previous Republican and Democratic administrations.
Yet, Professor Valenzuela argues that it is important to understand is that the U.S government is extremely big and that while the White House, the President, or the Vice-President may not make pronouncements on certain issues in the region, it doesn't mean that the United States has neglected Latin America.
"The Biden administration is going back to the multilateral approach to foreign policy with a focus on strengthening international institutions, such as the WHO, the UN, and the WTO. I think we're going to see much more of an emphasis on how we strengthen the OAS rather than to sort of think that it is something from the past," he said. "The jewel of the OAS, in many ways, was the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and that's as relevant today as it's ever been."
"I think that frankly, in a situation like Haiti, or even in this situation like Venezuela, it's ultimately going to be the UN that's going to really have to play a critical role on this. So, either Chapter Six or Chapter Seven of the UN, as was done in Haiti at another time, because of the institutional collapse these countries have suffered."
Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter outlines peaceful settlement of disputes and Chapter VII discusses action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression.
"This idea expressed the other day by the President of Mexico that somehow countries in Latin America should forget about the OAS and create their own organization is a fairly absurd concept," said Valenzuela.
In President Clinton's first term, Arturo Valenzuela served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs with primary responsibility for the implementation of U.S. foreign policy toward Mexico.
Recalling his personal experience in the region, the Chilean American scholar recalls, "After the Cold War ended, it was Latin America, more than the United States, that spearheaded the effort through the Resolution 1080 and later, the Democratic Charter, to ensure that the kinds of interventions by the United States would not continue. Fortunately, in the United States with the first Bush administration and then with the Clinton administration, the United States also veered away from the notion that somehow it needed to worry about whether Latin American countries were in the Soviet block or in the US block."
The Inter-American Democratic Charter represents the most recent development in the Organization of American States' longstanding democratic commitment.
In 1991, it adopted Resolution 1080, which provides for an emergency meeting of the hemisphere's foreign ministers to decide on specific collective action when democracy is interrupted. Resolution 1080 has been a key factor in helping to manage crises in the hemisphere. It has been invoked on four occasions: Haiti (1991), Peru (1992), Guatemala (1993) and Paraguay (1996).
"I'm not sure that AMLO has really put something together yet. Certainly, the Brazilians are not necessarily going to want to support this effort. In Ecuador, you now have a government that is more center and the Argentines shouldn't want to get involved in this proposal," Valenzuela said. "Even though Argentina has a government more towards the center left, at this particular point, they're also probably keen to strengthen their relationship with the United States. So, I'm not sure what AMLO is really talking about."
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