90.1 FM San Luis Obispo | 91.7 FM Paso Robles | 91.1 FM Cayucos | 95.1 FM Lompoc | 90.9 FM Avila
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Central Coast expert on Cuba discusses changes to US foreign policy

Flickr member Anton Novoselov

Last month, the Obama Administration drastically changed decades of foreign policy guidelines for relations with Cuba.

A Washington Post poll released in late December showed nearly 75 percent of Americans support the lifting of travel restrictions to that county, and roughly 2-out-of-3 back ending a trade embargo, and improving relations.

Charles Barclay is a former U.S. diplomat in Havana and was among the key players working to free Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor released as part of the sweeping changes.

He spoke with KCBX News Director Randol White regarding the recent changes.

RANDOL WHITE: It’s really nice having somebody here with your background to explain this Cuba situation, and somebody who is a local as well, to give it the twist that the people who live here might want to know.

CHARLES BARCLAY: Cuba is pretty much unexplainable. I used to tell people that there are two or three answers to every question in Cuba, and they’re all right.

RANDOL WHITE: How long did you live in Havana?

CHARLES BARCLAY: I was there for three years, between 2009 and 2012.

RANDOL WHITE: What was your reaction when you heard the news that that Mr. Gross was being released? And that these sweeping changes were part of the mix too?

CHARLES BARCLAY: I was delighted to hear that Alan Gross had been released. I got to know him pretty well; I would make regular visits to the prison where he was being held. He’s a good guy, a very good sense of humor, which kind of kept him afloat during some pretty tough years. And he should have been out a lot sooner than he was. The measures announced by the white house in terms of walking back some of the sanctions, the embargo still stays in place. And there are still travel restrictions for most of the American citizens. Not surprising given that the politics that have changed over the years, it’s not as burning an issue both among Americans at large, the polling you point out is an indication of that, but among Cuban Americans too. It’s less of an intensely debated issue. Probably a slim majority are in favor among the Cuban community in South Florida are for rolling back the embargo, a stronger majority in favor of ending travel restrictions and the like. If you look at younger Cubans, people whose family left the islands in the late 90’s and later, the sentiments are resoundingly in favor of opening to Cuba.

RANDOL WHITE: You say that it took longer to release Mr. Gross than it should have, if I remember correctly, part of the reason for his release was his health. How’s he doing? Have you spoken with him since his release?

CHARLES BARCLAY: I have not, I would imagine that he has been very busy over the holidays. I reached out and I hope to talk to him at some point in the near future. His health was always a concern to us, and that was one of the things that we spent a lot of time working with the Cuban government to make sure he was given the proper medical treatment that he needed. Nobody should be subjected to those kind of conditions. He was a gentleman about my age, and I won’t say how old that is, but is it was particularly difficult for him.

RANDOL WHITE: Now you never saw the conditions in which he was being held, you met at an offsite location?

CHARLES BARCLAY: that's true he was held in one area and then brought over for the monthly meetings that we had with him and another man, a Ministry of Interior facility.

RANDOL WHITE: was he able to discuss his living situation?

CHARLES BARCLAY: Yes, he was. It was Spartan, you know I don't think it was inhuman, but very Spartan. The food situation on the island is not good for most Cubans in the prisoners both Cuban and foreign are kind of given the same rations that everybody else is.

RANDOL WHITE: what is Havana like? Is it really as time stamped as people say?

CHARLES BARCLAY: it's definitely changing. It changed during my time there. The images of all these old American cars tooling up and down the roads and they're still there but there's an awful lot of Russian made cars are on the road, and then over the three years that I was there you some more and more late model Japanese and European cars coming in as imports were relaxed a little bit. So it's mixed. The city is kind of getting not a facelift, but they've buffed it up particularly in the old colonial section because tourism is a major money maker for the Cubans.

RANDOL WHITE: And those are tourists coming from Canada and Europe?

CHARLES BARCLAY: Canada and Europe, but increasingly American tourists are, a group called the People to People travelers is one of the special programs coming down. We had quite a few coming in my last year, they're probably maybe between 50 and 75 thousand.

RANDOL WHITE: is there a work around for Americans to get to Cuba? Like in order to travel there, how are people doing that?

CHARLES BARCLAY: Well, off and on over the last 20 years we've had what are called People to People programs that will allow Americans to go through Miami generally and visit the island on tours it’s called purposeful travel. That’s the way to promote exchanges between Americans and Cubans, and to get Cubans to see what Americans are like. That’s been a strategy of various administrations. It’s been rolled back at times, it’s been expanded at times. One of those things the Obama administration has done twice now is to expand the numbers of Americans who are allowed to participate on those tours.

RANDOL WHITE: I'm wondering about the Cubans image of Americans. While you were living there, did you have the opportunity to mix with the locals?

CHARLES BARCLAY: We were fairly restricted, and Cubans by in large discouraged by their government by interacting with us. But Cubans are Cubans, they’re very warm, engaging people. I never felt any hostility from ordinary Cubans. They’re curious about us as American diplomats. Like most people, there they weren't aware that we had a diplomatic presence on the island. A lot of them have, in fact most of them have family members in the United States. They get pirated satellite television, there is various other ways of getting news from the U.S, and they’re very familiar with the United States and It's a very natural relationship done 10 last 50 years of kind of been an operation I guess the history of it’s a very natural relationship. The last 50 years have been an aberration of the history of how close we are to Cuba.

RANDOL WHITE: People forget that we had a close relationship with Cuba, but was it in the fifties, the Cuban theme was huge and it we spoke prior to this interview that I was just in Key West and you're telling me that there used to be a car ferry from Key West to Havana?

CHARLES BARCLAY: in the fifties, yeah. I think there was a company in a few years ago that was interested in and restarting that up. Again, there are lots of ways to get to Cuba now, we’ve got fifty or sixty thousand American tourists, although we aren’t supposed to call them tourists, but you also have a lot of Cuban Americans traveling back and forth to the island now, to visit family members. About 400 thousand a year.

RANDOL WHITE: Because the polls are running in favor of these changes, do you realistically see Congress blocking President Obama's actions?

CHARLES BARCLAY: They may be able to on one or two counts. For example, reopening embassies—we can do that with an exchange of diplomatic notes very simply. What they can do in congress is block funding for constructing or expanding the existing diplomatic facility there. They can refuse to confirm the nominee for the ambassador position, so what I would expect as the Embassy will be an Embassy, but it'll look pretty much like it did when I was there. It will have a chargee, or a chief of the mission, not a full-fledged ambassador, but again it will continue to function pretty much as it did in 2009 to 2012.

RANDOL WHITE: As you mention, the embargo is still in place, and travel restrictions have been lifted, but not across the board.


RANDOL WHITE: If these changes are well received and seem to work well, do you foresee even more of a loosening of relations?

CHARLES BARCLAY: I think a lot would have to change politically in Cuba in order for that to happen. The embargo was kind of put into place piece by piece of the early sixties as a result of administrative decrees, or executive degrees; and in the mid ninety's it was kind of codified legislatively. So, anything to really undo with this complex web of restrictions and sanctions would have to be done in cooperation between the executive branch and the legislative branch in the United States. There’s still plenty of people in Congress, with good reason, that look at the Cuban government and say, “look not much is really changed, it’s still essentially a socialist dictatorship, with the potential for further human rights abuses are great and not a lot of willingness to do more.” I frankly don't think any president, Republican or Democrat, would want to invest the political capital needed to make really any big changes to unravel the embargo. Absolute and fundamental change in the politics down in Havana.

RANDOL WHITE: You still have friends who are still working there?

CHARLES BARCLAY: At the mission, no. The turnover is every couple years, so most everybody I worked with within the mission has gone. But, I have a lot of friends in the Cuban community, and I keep in touch with them. Among the dissidents, and the artists, and writers, great people, and some of my fondest memories of being a diplomatic professional is from my time there.

RANDOL WHITE: Have you heard from any of them regarding this?

CHARLES BARCLAY: I have. And It's interesting, the dissident community is kind of divided over whether this is a good thing or not. There's some hardliners among them as well and a lot of them spent many years in prison so I can understand their sentiments, who feel that this is premature. Some of the younger members of the dissident community are eager and welcoming of the measures, so it’s a mixed bag. Everything in Cuba and about Cuba is polarized between various groups.

RANDOL WHITE: Are there things you miss a lot about Havana, like the food, the weather?

CHARLES BARCLAY: Well, the food improved while I was there but I would not call it a world-class cuisine. They seem to be phobic about spices, surprisingly enough. The art scene, the music scene, absolutely fantastic. And really some of the most interesting and challenging friendships that I made are artists and musicians on the island.

RANDOL WHITE: I’ve had my share of Cuban coffees over the past week or so…

CHARLES BARCLAY: The coffee is great.

RANDOL WHITE: That’s what I was going to say: is that an American version of what Cuban coffee is, or is the coffee there really fantastic?

CHARLES BARCLAY: No, what you get there in south Florida is every bit as good as what you can get in Cuba itself. In Cuba there were shortages from time to time, and occasionally they would start serving up chicory, or a coffee blended with chicory, which is just awful. But when they put together a good café latte, there is no equal in the world.

RANDOL WHITE: It is among some of the best coffee I’ve had here, recently… The state of California produces a lot of agriculture, and Cuba is about the size of Ohio population-wise?

CHARLES BARCLAY: About 11 million people.

RANDOL WHITE: So, I imagine they would have a need for some of the products that we grow here. Could the easing of relations be a boon to our agriculture economy in California?

CHARLES BARCLAY: There are definitely opportunities. I’d point out that since 2000, we have been exporting food to Cuba, and a lot of food-interests in the Midwest, particularly, are some of the loudest voices when it comes to easing sanctions. At one point, briefly, for a couple of years, we were Cuba’s largest source of imported food. And we still rank, top four, top five sources of imports to Cuba.

RANDOL WHITE: Mainly what?

CHARLES BARCLAY: Typically a lot of rice. Right now it’s chicken, soybeans, soy products and animal feeds. There will be an expansion. What really has to happen though for a true opportunity in Cuba is for the economy to continue to retool. They could develop the tourist industry a lot more than they have, although that is a major lynch-pin under their economy. They have to basically grow and produce stuff of their own to sell in order to get the hard currency that they need to import products anywhere. When that happens, Cuba’s economy has potential to grow leaps and bounds, and I think that is where the real opportunity will be, but we’re not there yet.

RANDOL WHITE: Clearly, 50 years of what we were doing has not really changed anything. What do you think it would take to change the political structure in Cuba? Do the Castros literally have to age out of the system?

CHARLES BARCLAY: Every regime, every system is essentially a coalition of interests, and they have a stake in maintaining the status quo. The Castros are a big part of the equation, but there are other elements. There’s the military, which runs a large chip of the economy, there are state bureaucrats, people who run the ministries, and work in the ministries, and there are communist party officials. These are all people, and it’s a sizeable group, that would really want to see change happen very slowly to protect their interests and their positions. So, I think the Castros aside, it’s gonna be a tough group of people to deal with and work to promote real change.

RANDOL WHITE: I’ve seen articles in the paper saying that the United States has much more open relations with other communist countries. Why is it that with Cuba, we have these really tight restrictions?

CHARLES BARCLAY: Well, again, it dates back to the early 60’s when everything was put in place. This was the result of some pretty provocative action by the Cuban government, frankly. You have a large, although aging, group of people who are exiles from the island who have a great political voice in south Florida particularly, so the domestic politics is a factor. But there are some national security considerations, and those are still salient today. I’m frequently told by people that we economic relations and diplomatic relations with China, and that hasn’t changed everything much politically. As a matter of fact, China has changed profoundly in the 20 or 30 years that they have opened up their economy, and we’ve engaged them both commercially and diplomatically, and it will continue to change profoundly over the next 20 years. I think that that is probably try with Cuba as well.

RANDOL WHITE: You think that we could take that same road that we’ve taken with Ping-Pong diplomacy with Richard Nixon, do you feel like this is that point with Cuba?

CHARLES BARCLAY: It’s a leap of fate right now. I mean, I was there for three years and I saw them crack a lot of heads, I was under constant surveillance. It’s not a North Korea by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not a benign government. They have a heavy security apparatus, friends of mine were being constantly arrested, but they’re still doing that as well. They’ve moved away from long-term detentions of a mass number of dissidents to a mass detentions. If something happens, there is a demonstration planned or a street event, they’ll go and they’ll roll it up, they’ll arrest 50 people and hold them for several hours or a couple days and then they’ll release them. And I expect that to continue, however, I can say this as a private citizen: clearly the embargo has not worked after 50 plus years. It has not achieved our political goals. It has hardened things on the island rather than open things up. So, it’s time to take a leap of faith, and there’s a lot of political science and social science involved here, that don’t just say ‘okay, we’re gonna open up, we’re gonna allow Cuban and American citizens to interact a little bit more, we’re gonna promote trade relations as much as they can support a fledgling private sector in Cuba. Down the line, we’ll see an evolution, we’ll see the context in which decision makers in the Cuban government are making decisions about where to take their country.’ And that is not as satisfying as regime change, or an abrupt overturning of the old order, but it’s not as dangerous either. This is a country again of 11 million people, highly-educated people, close to our southern borders, and we have a great stake in promoting stability there. So, for among other reasons, we don’t want to see another mass migration flow like we have had a couple of times over the last 35 years.

RANDOL WHITE: I often wonder if the more isolated and private a country is, like Cuba, the more opportunity there is for the government to commit atrocities against their people. Then the flip flop of that is, the more open it is, the more tourism there is, and the more eyes that are able to see what’s happening, if the government would be more restrained when it comes to how they treat their people.

CHARLES BARCLAY: I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve also repeatedly heard that by easing up on the embargo, by promoting U.S travel to Cuba, we’re taking away one of the propaganda or ideological underpinnings of the Cuban government, which for years has been able to point to the big bad Yankees of the north that’s the cause of all of our misery and trouble here. That is certainly part of the government’s narrative, but most Cubans that I talk to during my time there, you get a roll of the eyes when you ask them about it. Nobody believes that line that much, they pretty much know where the focus of their problems are, and that’s a dysfunctional political and economic system that’s just not serving the interests of the Cuban people anymore. That said, again, this is a way we can undercut that narrative that the government uses over and over again.

RANDOL WHITE: In your mind, best case scenario for the next decade?

CHARLES BARCLAY: I’d say continue growth in the private sector, easing up of some of the political restrictions that the government has placed on ordinary Cubans, a slow evolution of the departure of Fidel Castro regime. I had the opportunity to interact with Raul Castro a couple of times, and for a guy in his early-mid-eighties, he is a very spry individual. And I wouldn’t expect to see him go anywhere, barring something completely unforeseen, I would expect to see him there managing things to one extent to another over the next five to ten years. But an evolution that’s not gonna satisfy our desire for true democracy and better human rights on the island, but again, an evolution, at least a positive direction.

RANDOL WHITE: And a car ferry from Key West?

CHARLES BARCLAY: I doubt that at this point.