Inside the Cuba Negotiations: A Conversation with Roberta Jacobson

Inside the Cuba Negotiations: A Conversation with Roberta Jacobson

by Forum Staff

Fletcher alum Roberta S. Jacobson serves as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and has been nominated for the post of  ambassador to Mexico. In 2015 she led U.S. negotiations on the normalization of ties with Cuba.

The Fletcher Forum talked with Jacobson in late 2015 about the challenges and surprises she encountered in the Cuba talks.

FLETCHER FORUM: What were the major challenges that you encountered in the negotiations? How did you handle internal and external negotiations?

JACOBSON:  One of the first things we had to do internally before we sat down with the Cubans was organize what was part of our negotiation and what wasn’t.  We knew that the Cubans might try to load on things that we did not feel should be included.  We felt strongly that these negotiations were about the conditions that we needed to restart formal diplomatic relations and run an embassy. We presumed, for example, that given the fact that over the years the Cubans had been very firm on being taken off the state-sponsored terrorism list, they were going to try to make that a condition of diplomatic relations.  Our view was that that was a very separate process.

We did our homework. It’s important to look for precedents before you sit down, so that when the person across the table says, as the Cubans did, “We couldn’t possibly have diplomatic relations with a country that considers us a state sponsor of terrorism,” we are able to say, “In fact, we have had diplomatic relations with countries on that list.”

On the internal side within the U.S. executive branch, we were lucky in that we didn’t have a lot of negotiation. It was clearly the State Department’s purview to decide what constituted a normal diplomatic relationship and what we needed to run an embassy.  Unlike almost everything else I can think of in government, we didn’t have a whole lot of second-guessing from other agencies or the National Security Council, which of course had led the earlier negotiations.

We did have a lot of time with lawyers and took them with us on the negotiating team. Fundamentally, what rules diplomatic relationships are two international conventions: the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Those are very important to us because they clearly lay out how we are able to defend moving about the country freely and talking to whomever we want. From the Cubans’ perspective though, those same two documents very clearly lay out that you can’t interfere in domestic affairs, and that every country has a right to defend its sovereignty. So we agreed early on that those international legal documents would make up the basis for this conversation. But as you can see, which is very common, both sides had parts of that document to which we repeatedly referred in order to defend our sometimes-conflicting positions.

We had four rounds of talks and the first round—I think as is often the case in negotiations—was nothing but trying to set up an agenda. We were luckier than some; we didn’t spend hours on the equivalent of the shape of the table, or who would be at the table. But we had to come up with an agenda and decide on the things we needed to run an embassy. We came up with four areas: access and security of the mission in Havana, which we felt was much too severe; travel and the ability to operate freely in the country by our officers; staffing levels for both countries, which we felt were too low; and the ability to adequately provision our mission without interference. Those four things we felt were not only legitimate under Vienna Convention but also got at the heart of our ability to operate like other embassies. They were administrative but also highly political.

The Cubans eventually agreed to those, though they had trouble with aspects of them, and added a couple more: the state-sponsored terrorism list, as we were expecting, and the ability to find a bank for their diplomatic operations. For two years, they had been unable to find a bank. It had to do with a combination of the state-sponsor of terrorism issue because banks were worried on reputational grounds and about sanctions; and banks cutting back on all of their foreign accounts because they were concerned about potential federal charges. We thought the latter was legitimate and had been trying to help them find a bank, but that the former was not and needed to be separated out.

FLETCHER FORUM: Was there a watershed or tipping point moment in the negotiations when you thought, “This clicks, and now it’s going to work?” Or did you have confidence from the beginning?

JACOBSON: No, I did not have confidence from the beginning. The first meeting went as expected.  We agreed on an agenda—it was not easy, but we agreed. I was pleased with that, but my view was that the devil was always in the details, and so I knew we hadn’t yet confronted any of the hard parts.

There were at least two occasions close to the end, one right before the Summit of the Americas in April and the other right before the final agreement in June, when I thought the whole thing might fall apart and we might not get what we were hoping for. So I don’t really think it clicked that we were actually going to get what we needed until the last round.

We went into each round knowing our optimal position, the ideal, what we’d really like, what might be realistic, and what we could probably live with if push came to shove.  What I was really pleased about was that on the majority of the agreement, we got the ideal, or above “realistic.” I felt really good at the end that we had an agreement that was, despite some people carping, easily defensible. We had always said, this is not going to be an embassy that operates like London or Paris, or even Mexico City. It’s going to be more like how we operate in Myanmar or Vietnam or Russia—embassies that operate in restrictive environments. That’s what we were comparing it to.

FLETCHER FORUM: Now that the U.S. and Cuban embassies have opened in each country, how do you envision the next steps in normalizing relations unfolding in the short term, over the next year?

JACOBSON: What we’re focused on right now are the priority dialogues. There were, at the first round of talks, a series of dialogues that we agreed to as the most important to each of us. And there were things that, as the President said when he announced the policy change, were mutual benefits. Some of them were already in motion but needed to be taken to the next level: migration; maritime safety; and environmental cooperation, especially in the maritime space. At the Oceans Conference in Chile in October 2015, we announced cooperation on a marine conservation area.

Law enforcement is also crucial. For years the Cubans have wanted certain alleged fugitives or alleged criminals back, and we have wanted people back from Cuba, but we’ve had few exchanges.  They have sent people back and we have sent people back, but they’ve not been the highest-level interest.

We need and want a human rights dialogue, even if at the beginning that’s going to be a dialogue of the deaf. They’ll talk about Ferguson, Staten Island, policing, and racial prejudice in the United States and we’ll talk about detentions of dissidents and the one-party system in Cuba. But we have to keep pushing.

Overall, we have about twelve areas altogether that are priorities.  Some of them have begun to bear fruit. We are, for example, beginning to look at cooperation in the healthcare field in Haiti, where Cuban doctors have worked and we recently had the U.S. Naval ship Comfort. They’ve also done a lot of work in Africa, most recently stepping up on Ebola. We want to see if there’s more we can do together in areas like that.

The other area that obviously is going to be interesting moving forward is regulatory changes.  We just did our second round of changes, which make it easier for people to travel, and that will continue to be a priority for us.

I think that telecommunications changes are among the most important issues the President highlighted in his December 17 statement.  Getting information into that island is what’s going to be revolutionary and generationally critical. Young people are not just desperate for information; they’re getting increasingly frustrated that they can’t get it.

The Cubans have committed to 50 percent Internet connectivity across the island by 2020. To be frank, that’s pretty bad. They could clearly leapfrog and go directly to LTE and broadband, but instead are looking at going to horse and buggy and then maybe Model-T.  There’s a reason for that: each of those slower stages allows them greater control. But I don’t think you can do that forever, especially with a younger population.  The regulations we’ve made allow U.S. telecommunications companies to do a lot more, including joint ventures and opening brick and mortar offices in Cuba, all designed to result in more Cubans gaining access.

FLETCHER FORUM: What does U.S.-Cuba engagement mean for Cuba’s role on the global stage—in particular the Cuba-Russia relationship?

JACOBSON: The short answer is that it’s complicated. The Cubans are serial monogamists. First it was the Soviet Union, then it was Venezuela as their economic patron, and now they’re engaging with us to a much greater extent, but not giving up the Russia relationship.

I don’t think the Russians are worried, but I do think that there’s a desire on the part of the Cubans to reassure their hard line that the relationship with Russia isn’t going anywhere. During some parts of the last six to eight months when we were most engaged, there were Russian ships visiting, one of which was theoretically an intelligence ship. The ship was old, but it was symbolic.

The Cuban government is used to engaging with one country. But the real issue is the Cubans are fairly practical. Who can give them something right now? Right now the Russians can’t do anything for them economically.

We know that the Cubans are refurbishing some military equipment via North Korea, against sanctions. But I don’t think the Russians can do much for them militarily and I don’t think the Cubans want much militarily. So while I don’t think that relationship disappears, generationally, it just becomes less relevant. This is why Russia is now pursuing Venezuela and others in the region: to prove it’s still relevant.  It’s not much to be alarmed about right now because they’re overextended.  Alarming in some places but not in this hemisphere.

FLETCHER FORUM: How do you see the U.S.-Cuba relationship 10 or 20 years down the road?  What’s the ideal situation?

JACOBSON: First, Cubans love Americans—they loved Americans even at the worst period of our relationship. I was there in 1995, which was not a good time in the relationship, and it didn’t matter.  Cubans often thought I was Canadian because not many Americans were there. When they found out I was American, they would say, “Oh, I have relatives in New Jersey.” They love Americans. So instinctively, this relationship gets better.

On the other hand, it’s going to be in fits and starts.  The Cuban government is already nervous about how fast it’s moving, and how we’re overwhelming them. It isn’t linear and anyone who thinks this is a straight line to a positive relationship is kidding himself or herself.  This is going to be complicated. It’s not just 50 years of embargo and complicated relationships; it goes back to Cuba’s independence and relationship with us and the Spanish? So I think ultimately, it’s complicated, but the trajectory has to be positive. There’s nowhere to go but up.

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