US Diplomats Discuss the Challenges in Restoring Relations With Cuba

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee visited Duke Wednesday to discuss recent efforts to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

Lee’s work as deputy assistant for South America and Cuba follows half a century of strained relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Patrick Duddy, former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela and director of Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, moderated the discussion, introducing Lee as “the lead in an effort to rebuild relations” after 54 years of tensions.

Despite recent strides toward establishing diplomatic ties, including the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, the economic embargo against Cuba still stands.

Lee said the embargo poses a significant challenge to regulatory change. “The regulatory part is like a Rubik’s Cube,” he said. “You have to figure out where the laws allow you to make exceptions [to the embargo].”

Despite these challenges, Lee remains optimistic about opportunities for the two countries to explore mutual interests, and for the U.S. government to facilitate travel, communication and trade with Cuban civil society.

Although he predicted there will be no movement toward voting down the embargo this congressional term, he sees increasing support in the Senate for lifting bans on trade and travel.

But public opinion on reestablishing ties with Cuba is still split. Significant areas of disagreement remain between the two countries, particularly regarding the Cuban government’s treatment of peaceful dissenters.

“We have sharp disagreements with the Cuban government,” he said. “But at the same time, we have both identified areas that are in our respective national interests. We should be sharing information on law enforcement cooperation, on trafficking… Cubans want to do that, and we want to do that.”

So far, he said, regulatory efforts to improve relations have been successful; among other efforts, the United States has begun negotiations with Cuba to allow regularly scheduled airline and passenger ferry services to enter the country for purposeful travel.

“I would argue that what we have done in the past 10 months is really rather dramatic,” he said, “particularly compared to the policy approach of isolation that we have employed for 54 years.”

This event was sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the John Hope Franklin Center, as part of the Wednesdays at the John Hope Franklin Center Series.