One day after the world delivered a near-unanimous rebuke of long-standing U.S. sanctions against his country for the 30th time in a row, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla discussed why he believed U.S. President Joe Biden should answer the international call in a wide-ranging interview with Newsweek Senior Foreign Policy Writer Tom O’Connor on the difficult relations between the two nations.
The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba is often described as the longest-running sanctions campaign in modern history, having begun only a few years after the island just 90 miles south of Florida underwent an uprising that brought revolutionary leader Fidel Castro to power in 1959. While some progress was made toward warming ties between the Cold War-era foes some 55 years later under former President Barack Obama, the process was reversed under former President Donald Trump, who went on to toughen the effective economic blockade against Cuba.
Since taking office, Biden, who championed Obama’s efforts while serving as his vice president, has largely followed in Trump’s footsteps. Even after some 185 countries voted against the sanctions campaign at the United Nations (U.N.) on Thursday, with only the U.S. and Israel rejecting the resolution and Brazil and Ukraine abstaining, the administration defended the restrictions and shifted the blame to Cuba for alleged human rights abuses, including the repression of recent protests.
But Rodríguez defended his country’s track record at a time of economic turmoil in Cuba, which faces basic supply shortages that he also blamed on an embargo that was only tightened throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He said Cuba was open to discussing any bilateral issue with the U.S. except for the Communist-led island’s internal affairs, which he asserted was a matter of national sovereignty and independence.
Far from being a state sponsor of terrorism, Cuba, he argued, was a friendly neighbor prepared to work with the U.S. in good faith on a range of common issues and, days away from a contentious series of midterm elections set to take place across the U.S., he loathed the influence of domestic politics on Washington’s relationship with Havana. Despite the bad blood between the two governments, he said it was within Biden’s power to remove at least some of the harshest measures against Cuba with the stroke of a pen.
In a direct appeal, Cuba’s top diplomat urged the Biden administration, U.S. policymakers and the public to rethink a policy that he argued was responsible not only for the suffering of everyday Cubans but also a deterioration in Washington’s relationship with the international community. This was especially the case in Latin America, he noted, where a new wave of leftist leaders was expected to shore up ties with Havana, leaving Washington as isolated as ever in its own hemisphere.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Newsweek: For the 30th time in a row, and with near unanimity, the international community has condemned U.S. sanctions against Cuba. And yet at the same time, there doesn’t seem to be any indication in the near term that Washington is going to waver on this policy. What does this vote mean to you, to Cuba and the dynamics of this U.S. policy that’s gone on for decades now?
Rodríguez: For me, it’s a very personal and emotional issue. I attended the second vote in 1993 personally and saw the growth of this roll call, of the pattern of votes from a few dozens of votes, 59 in the first in the year, to almost unanimous support currently.
So, it’s an important message, it’s an ethical message, because the Security Council has a different means, Chapter VII use of force… With the General Assembly, it’s a more democratic and universal body of the whole world and the United Nations and it’s a powerful message, which we couldn’t underestimate. It’s an important political message, it’s an important consideration from the international law point of view.
But for our people, it was impressive. Yesterday, people in the whole country gathered, following the speeches on the voting. I saw impressive images from Mantua, which is in the devastated province of Pinar del Río, people in the streets and from Havana University, thousands of students seeking live coverage of the vote. It’s a popular issue in Cuba. Beyond politics, it’s a national issue.
From the political point of view, I feel that is truly important and could connect with the American people also. Unfortunately, there is no massive coverage by the U.S. media or digital networks, but it’s important and people know about that. This is an expression of a historical mass, a critical mass accumulation, and it’s an expression of a historical trend and I feel really optimistic about that because I feel that this government or another U.S. government would have to change these unfair, unjustifiable policies.
I know that Cuba’s position is that it does not get involved with the internal affairs of other countries. But this U.S. policy has become so intertwined with domestic politics here in the United States. We’ve seen that over various administrations to include this present one and now we have midterm elections coming up. Is Cuba concerned about the future policies of this administration, or a future administration, especially if there is a conservative shift here, and that this policy could stay for a long time or become even more hawkish?
Not especially, because it has been a very long experience. It is the longest sanctions regime and the most comprehensive one in human history. No doubt on that.
Secondly, we have been living with 13 U.S administrations. It’s a matter of fact that during the years of 2014 to 2016, maybe early 2017, there was tangible evidence that this is workable, it’s viable, it’s positive and it’s highly recognized by the American citizens, by the Cuban citizens, by the international community, and it seems that it’s possible to do so again, despite uncertainties. Because it’s unfortunate that some United States state decisions could be changed because of the politics…like the Paris Agreement, on a real, actual issue—which could be beyond ideological differences, political differences, even national interests, geostrategic interests, because it’s a matter of survival of the human species—was changed solely by the then-new administration.
We are ready for discussing any bilateral issue, for negotiating all pending bilateral issues, with no shadow to our independence or sovereignty, on the basis of equal footing and sovereign equality, mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs. I suffer, this is painful, the level of polarization in the American society, which has a powerful special cultural connection with Cuban families and Cuban culture and it’s painful, this promotion of hate, violence, polarization, it’s an explosion, and we suffer this epidemic that’s maybe worldwide.
But I prefer to be focused on bilateral issues. Because it’s up to you. It’s up to the American citizens who decide about internal affairs. And I hope that Cuba’s issue could be perceived not as a domestic one, because Cuba is a neighboring, friendly country, but an independent country, and shouldn’t be kidnapped by politics or by the swing electoral conditions in any state of the American Union.
I want to focus on one aspect of these U.S. sanctions and the U.S. policy toward Cuba and that is the addition of Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Having been here in New York during 9/11, having seen the horrors of terrorism in person, how do you perceive Cuba being on this list and what do you say to the people who, having seen Cuba on this list, believe that Cuba must be a threat to the United States?
It’s unfair, no doubt of that. Cuba was for decades on the previous list, but was deleted in 2014 and, at this very moment, it was crystal clear that it was absolutely unfair to have my country on this list with absolutely no evidence, with a very rock-solid tradition and behavior by my country fighting terrorism.
When 9/11 happened, the reactions of the Cuban government and our people was immediately to offer all of our airports. You should remember that there were thousands of American planes flying under the conditions of no airports… Secondly, we offered plasma, blood and, thirdly, medical assistance. When there was the anthrax attack, even in New York City, we immediately offered Cuban medical equipment for performing massive blood tests because we developed this technology for dealing with the HIV epidemic at this time, but it’s cheaper and very effective for performing massive blood tests and we offered equipment, technology.
And after that, because I remember the U.S. was in a deficit of antibiotics, ciprofloxacin. We offered immediately a massive donation of ciprofloxacin. It couldn’t be possible, but we did it with the American Interests Section diplomats in Havana city.
When Hurricane Katrina impacted in New Orleans, we immediately offered Cuban medical personnel and the mayor of the city and the governor of the state immediately accepted, but it was prevented by the government.
But my bottom line is that we should not mix politics or political differences or ideological differences with really important human causes or issues, like I also pointed out climate change, but also, for instance, terrorism. The politicization, political manipulation of this terrible issue which is terrorism could affect the efficiency for fighting terrorism, for preventing terrorism and affected the international cooperation and dialogue, which emerged as maybe the only positive outcome after 9/11. But unfortunately, we couldn’t take this opportunity as an international community.
Secondly, the pretext for listing Cuba was, firstly, the presence in Cuba of a guerilla ELN [National Liberation Army] peace dialogue delegation. This is slanderous and is a brutal manipulation. This delegation was in Cuba as a request of the Colombian government, the Colombian state and the request of the United Nations on the basis of an agreement which is international law, a body signed by six international guarantors they posted in the United Nations, and it has been absolutely slanderous. But just today and the day before yesterday, the most important issue in the statements and the new thing was advocating for eliminating Cuba from this list.
The second pretext was an alleged Cuban military presence in Venezuela, totally slanderous. The national security adviser [at the time], Mr. [John] Bolton, even said that more than 20,000 Cubans soldiers were in Venezuela. It’s slanderous. He’s a pathological liar, Mr. Bolton, and it’s crystal clear because of the progress between the U.S. and the Venezuelan government in talks on fuel and different issues.
Thirdly, in 2015, there was a positive change on this view, and it was really recognized by the whole world. But this inclusion of Cuba on the list was the last blow by President Donald Trump nine days before the opening of the new government, nine days, it was January 11th, it was the last decision on Cuba and it was a blow targeting Cuba, but it could be possible to think it was a symbol also targeting President Obama’s, President Biden’s policy toward Cuba.
And President Biden could change this situation with a signature, no legislative decision… It would be the right thing to do. They could be fair, and the impact of this list is lethal to our economy, and it’s provoking a huge humanitarian damage to our people.
Another set of accusations that the Biden administration has presented against Cuba is an array of human rights violations. They list political suppression, the arbitrary arrest of protesters. How does Cuba react to these allegations, especially after we saw several rounds of unrest in Cuba, which doesn’t happen very often to that level? And does this policy of punishing Cuba for alleged human rights violations leave any room for dialogue between the two countries right now?
We feel as an obligation, as a duty of our government, to grant the full access to exercise all human rights by all Cuban citizens. Firstly, it’s a very hypocritical position to accuse the Cuban government and to blame the Cuban government for the conditions that are generated by the U.S. policy against Cuba.
In fact, there has been a deterioration of the living conditions of Cuban families, mostly from the second half of 2019 in which the embargo was extremely strengthened on the basis of the policy of maximum pressure, trying to provoke the collapse of the Cuban economy without thinking of the day after that or even the implications of that for regional stability or even migratory flows between Cuba and the U.S. But the main issue, creating very harsh living conditions for the Cuban families, is the embargo’s policy.
Secondly, there is a payment and encouragement in looking for a social outbreak in Cuba. The U.S. embassy, the State Department, the American officials are permanently advocating for that and encouraging people to do so. There are even toxic digital platforms, mostly based in Miami, all the time instigating violence, inciting even terrorist acts in Cuba… What you saw for the situation of January the 6th in the Capitol Building and around it, people are under indictment of all seditions, of all their crimes, serious crimes. They are dissidents? Could we call them political dissidents? Or are they involved in criminal acts?
When it happened in Cuba, and people with guns or with a really violent attitude try to occupy a police station, a police precinct or an official building or damage private or social property, rioters… why does the State Department call them dissidents or political protesters? Most of the persons involved in disturbances in Cuba one or two years ago did not have a violent attitude. But in Cuba, only persons involved in violent events have put been on trial on the basis of our laws and our constitution with full due process or legal guarantees, no minors, absolutely no minors, were put on trial.
Yesterday, I was listening very carefully to the speech U.S. Political Counselor John Kelley made. His first idea was that the U.S. government’s priority is the well-being and support to the Cuban people. It’s a lie. It’s a terrible manipulation. They could relax the embargo. They could even have relaxed the embargo through temporary exceptions like the U.S. government did during the peak of the COVID pandemic but excluding Cuba of this temporary benefit. Why, if it is a humanitarian, and a purely humanitarian, issue? Targeting remittances, which is brutal, my God, it’s not a bilateral issue, it’s not a political issue, it’s a matter of families, people who love each other.
And it’s a very demagogic position, because there are many and serious American sources stating that there are no less than 600,000 detentions of juveniles on a daily basis in the U.S. Regarding the criminal age, half of the American states have no limits on that. Two states could even try a child of two years, three years. I remember after 9/11 here, during the anthrax epidemic, a boy in a New York primary school, 9 years old, spread out powder or some substance, making an unfortunate joke, and he was put on trial!
Also, the police violence in the U.S. is very well-known and highly recognized. The racist, systemic profiling in the U.S., police repression and in a systemic way is very well-known.
Let me finish by saying that we will continue granting the full participation of Cuban citizens in the decision-making process in our country like we did it in 2019 in a national referendum passing the constitution in place. And we just did it a few weeks ago passing a code of our families, a new law by a national referendum not by a political decision by a Cuban court, not by a parliamentarian decision even. And people attended in the midst of a blackout, very difficult living conditions, shortages of food, medicine, public transportation… people attended, 74% of Cuban voters voted and 66% voted “yes” and it’s a very democratic expression of the Cuban life.
But if the U.S. government could have legitimate, sincere concern on the well-being of Cuban families and Cuban people, they could firstly lift or relax the embargo, mostly in the humanitarian field. For instance, we just suffered a terrible hurricane, more than 100,000 houses damaged. Why not introduce some exemptions to the embargo policy, purely, only for humanitarian reasons?
And, secondly, if the U.S. government could be concerned in looking for a regular, safe and orderly flow of migrants, it could begin abrogating the so-called Cuban Adjustment Act, eliminating the schizophrenic policy in the U.S. border with Mexico that accepts Cubans and discriminates against all migrants from different countries and understanding that even these issues, like the disturbances and the stress, the suffering of our people… could be relieved with some executive changes of the policy toward Cuba.
On the future of this policy toward Cuba, the U.S. has received a rebuke from the international community, but also from the region in the form of a recent letter to the White House by former Latin American leaders. With the rise of leftist governments across the region and more pressure on the U.S., do you believe that it’s likely the U.S. will change course and, if not, what is Cuba to do?
It’s a bit of a hypothetical question. Firstly, these 18 former heads of state and government respectfully requested not only lifting the embargo but deleting Cuba from the list of country sponsors of terrorism, which is a very new and important approach by them.
Secondly, we have had, for many decades, excellent relations with all Latin American and Caribbean countries. Cuba was the second presidency pro tempore of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. It was in 2014, in Havana city, that was signed, not only proclaimed but signed by heads of state and government of all American countries, a proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a zone of peace, which is a brief, but very substantial, historical document.
We have had for decades a very important level of bilateral cooperation with most Latin American and Caribbean countries. In disaster conditions, we deploy medical personnel, even in countries with a very hardline, right government, even with no diplomatic relations. But we did it in the past because we believe in total separation between politics and ideological issues and humanitarian ones. We build together a tradition of very respectful positive relations between all countries of the region and Cuba.
A few years ago, after the first decade of this century, there was a regression in the region and a dramatic change in the political balance favoring right-wing political forces, neoliberalism, economic agendas. And we kept this excellent level of relations with them. There is a new wave of leftist government, popular movements… We are glad for having that. But there could be no change in our attitude, no change in the nature or quality of our relations with all Latin American and Caribbean countries.
But I feel that it’s an opportunity, it’s even an opportunity for the U.S. government for implementing a new, more efficient, more democratic policy, a fair policy toward Latin American and Caribbean countries. And, like the expression by the international community in different ways, because one month ago, dozens and dozens of heads of state and government attended the high-level segment of the General Assembly, appealing to the U.S. government for lifting the embargo, 185 votes requesting to the U.S., “Please, lift the embargo on Cuba.”
It is evidence that this policy, which is anchored in the past and in the Cold War, is obsolete, it’s dysfunctional. The U.S. goals have not been met because of this policy.
A very well-known conservative Republican senator said once that if you implement a policy for 50 years with no result, then there is a good reason for rethinking this policy. Why not? It’s a policy that should provoke discredit and profound international isolation for the U.S. government. It’s an undemocratic policy because most American citizens have a different opinion. It’s interfering with fundamental rights and freedoms of American citizens who are forbidden to exercise freedom to travel and visit Cuba. Why not? Why not have American citizens, a boy from Columbia University, a girl from Hostos College, go to Cuba and have first-hand information, receive free information and form their own personal opinion? The U.S. government is afraid of that.
It’s a nonsense policy. And I feel that a change in the U.S. policy toward Cuba could be highly beneficial for the relations between the U.S. and the whole region, highly beneficial for the U.S. national interest and it could remove an unsurmountable obstacle creating division between Latin American and Caribbean countries and the U.S.