We interviewed Timothy Zuniga-Brown, the Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Cuba since July 31, 2020. He is the highest ranking officer in the absence of an ambassador.
Before landing in Havana, Zuniga-Brown had been the coordinator of the State Department’s Office of Cuban Affairs. He was also the US Consul in Monterrey, Mexico, and the Deputy Chief of Mission in Ecuador. His thirty-year diplomat career includes posts in the Bahamas, Peru, Panama, South Africa and New Zealand.
One of the hosts of our podcast, Camilo Condis, asked the public official to talk a little bit about the current state of US-Cuba relations. In response, Zuniga-Brown said that relations are, as always, complicated.
He noted that during the current COVID-19 outbreak, relations have become more tense. Zuniga offered his best wishes, hoping “that everyone is OK and that those who unfortunately caught COVID-19, recover soon.”
Condis thanked the diplomat and immediately asked about the embargo (which the Cuban government calls a blockade). This issue is always on the table when we talk about relations between these two countries.
Do you believe this economic embargo has reached or is reaching its objective, 58 years later?
Zúñiga-Brown: That’s an excellent question. I knew you were going to ask about it and it’s something that is normally discussed. Talking about the embargo is like jumping to the middle of a conversation. Often, one talks about what’s happened in the past 58, 59 years, dating back to the ‘60s. We don’t have to go back so far in time, because that would be arguing history. It’s quite a complicated puzzle.
Just look back a year ago to the Constitution that came into force in Cuba, in 2019. I tell those at the Embassy to pay close attention to what each of the articles stipulates, especially Article 5. It states: “The Cuban Communist Party is the sole party,” and it seems that this issue is irrevocable too. It’s a Communist Party that governs the State and society too, which is to say, it’s a totalitarian system.
This is what the embargo brings to heel, focusing on limiting the flow of capital to the coffers of the Government, Ministry of Interior and the Armed Forces. This is why there is an embargo. Often people say that it affects them directly; I understand that.
However, what we are trying to do is to stop what is happening here in Cuba when the State takes totalitarian action, which, quite frankly, is against the Cuban people. Likewise, to stop this system from being exported to other countries. Today, we see what is happening in Venezuela, the dictatorships in Venezuela, in Nicaragua, and this is a serious problem. It’s an issue of repression and a lack of human rights.
Thanks to Cubans having greater access to the Internet, today we know that the embargo exists, but also that there is trade between Cuba and the US. I would like it if you could tell us a little bit about this please. What are the products that Cuba is buying from the US right now? What is Cuba allowed to buy? Which of the products authorized does it buy? I ask this because maybe Cuba doesn’t buy all of them. What are the conditions for this trade? Can you tell us a little bit about all of this?
Zúñiga-Brown: This is another great secret, it seems, about US-Cuba relations. The reality is there is a lot of contact between the two countries. Cuba is one of the countries with the highest demand of people [of people wanting to visit]. In that sense there are many US and Cuban-American citizens who come. I always find it funny when the statistics are given. The numbers are separated from the place the Cubans come from and almost 90% of them come from Miami. Because if you join these two numbers, a lot of US citizens come here. Clearly, there are also many Cubans who go to the US, or want to go there. Unfortunately, many want to go there forever.
In terms of the products we send Cuba, looking at last year (2019) alone, 3.7 million USD were spent on medicines and medical products. If we look at this year up until June, we are talking about just over 100 million dollars. Mainly agricultural products, and especially food and the famous chicken you see across the country. However, aside from chicken, Cuba also bought phosphates and fertilizers, some clothes, personal hygiene items, soap, cleaning products…
We would like there to be greater trade and this has continued over the years. If you go back to the early ‘90s, we’re talking about a list of things approved to be sent to Cuba worth billions of dollars. That’s to say, there is an influx of US products to Cuba, an influx of US citizens to Cuba, and it’s one of the things that keeps the country afloat.
A recurring problem people like me have, belonging to Cuba’s private sector -not self-employed like the Cuban government calls it-, is that we frequently run into situations where we are limited because we fall victim to the embargo.
For example, we can’t use PayPal to promote services abroad or to receive payments from foreign customers. Some online services and their platforms, are closed to Cuban webmasters. How could the US Government and State Department ensure that the Cuban people and private business owners don’t have these problems when marketing on or using US platforms?
Zúñiga-Brown: The US government’s policy is really trying to separate the Internet from the embargo’s greatest measures. We know that the Internet is a modern-day necessity in every country, including Cuba. Obviously, one of the differences which has given me a lot of hope, is that the Internet does exist today. It isn’t as advanced as it is in other countries, but it does exist. We have separated it from the embargo. I really hope the Cuban people are able to communicate more, and use it as a platform for their businesses.
I am a consumer of made in Cuba products, online. Products such as this program and products such as the ones I watch on YouTube, many bloggers… It’s interesting that this continues. It’s new for those of us who have just arrived and for Cubans too. It would be great if it could develop further.
Right now, the real reason the embargo exists is because of what I said previously. It’s because of what Cuba does here and outside its country. So, it’s complicated to try and hold onto these relations. However, they do exist more and more today, and I hope this continues.
Clearly, the Cuban products that are sold the most in the US, aside from fine Cuban people, are news, music, art, and this is complimented by marabu charcoal that is sold in many countries worldwide, but also in the US. What I’m getting at is that you can sell to the US, but I won’t deny it can be difficult.
Thousands and thousands of Cubans are concerned about one thing: consular services at the US Embassy. This includes family reconciliation, the US complying with the 20,000 visas the Embassy would grant, according to bilateral agreements. I know what you are going to tell me, because I spoke with Department of State officials. I have statements too, made to the press about the so-called “sonic attacks” and danger.
However, I was reading a little bit about your work and I picked up one example that caught my attention. While serving as the Consul in Monterrey, Mexico, in April 2016, a safety warning was issued. It strongly recommend US citizens take great care if they were traveling within three Mexican states.
In fact, consular employees were even given the recommendation not to travel to some cities if they weren’t traveling in a bulletproof vehicle. Likewise, they would receive extra pay for working in dangerous conditions. What I’m getting at is that you are a person with vast experience working in dangerous environments. That’s why I want to ask: do you believe there is still a risk for US Embassy personnel in Cuba? One that justifies the Embassy remaining practically closed?
Zúñiga-Brown: It’s a good point, and an important one at that. Like the embargo, we maybe have to start at the beginning of the story. The thing is that there was something that affected US personnel, so we had to reduce our staff. Now with COVID-19, we’ve had to reduce this number further. We still don’t have the conditions we need to reopen, and wishfully there is something we can do.
Regarding Monterrey: it was up to me to get my staff’s families back to Monterrey after seven years. We had evacuated because of X situation and it was highly rewarding work.
I’m getting to something that I really love. What will Cuba’s future be like? I believe it will be bright. It will be wonderful. First of all, because of the Cuban people and, secondly, because of Cuba itself, the island, its natural riches and beauty.
In terms of those who seek to emigrate, we don’t have a Consulate, quite frankly. It isn’t open, so we can’t process them. We have tried to process what we can, especially at the US Embassy in Guyana. We chose that country especially because Cubans don’t need a visa to enter. However, immigration agreements are serious and aside from our wish of wanting to grant the 20,000 visas per year, we can’t right now given the current situation. I believe that everyone can understand this.
I’m sure that many people listening to this broadcast will be listening closely to the details of immigration. We take it very seriously, we hear them, and we want to get somewhere. It is an issue we have to resolve, to put it in Cuban terms. We are fully aware that this is an extremely important matter.
Honestly, I would like us to get to the point where Cubans don’t want to emigrate like they do today. The demographic problems Cuba has right now, and in the future, are quite serious. So, I hope we can reach a democratic future, where human rights are respected. In that way, Cuba can move forward, as I’m sure it will in its own time.
In addition to the economic embargo, there have been many other sanctions that have been imposed over the years. Some were passed as laws by your Congress. However recently, a series of sanctions that I find particularly interesting, sanctions with a name and surname, were approved. The most recent case reported in the press involved General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez Callejas.
I understand that these sanctions are very common and can be found across the world. The US decides to sanction organizations or individuals in different ways. These can be economic sanctions, or sanctions on accounts in US banks, properties in the US or third countries. I wonder, why the country Cuba has so many sanctions and less of these personalized sanctions. I ask because it’s common practice for the US government to impose these kinds of personalized sanctions? Do you believe this is going to change in the future? Do you believe that this is a practice that will continue in the future?
Zúñiga-Brown: What we have said is that we will continue to apply pressure because of what Cuba is doing inside the country and what it does in other countries. In terms of what is happening here and in Venezuela and other countries too. There are certain people who are responsible for policy and therefore sanctions are being applied. They are being applied in a way so that they can be seen, in public. So that they understand that they need to respect human rights in Cuba. Exporting this system involves what we are seeing today with the demise of Venezuela.
This is a problem for us, and we said this in the last person sanctioned, a named case. This tells them we are looking for the influx of resources that go to certain State members. The Cuban State has decided, themselves, to put almost all of this under the name of one company [Gaesa]. We could say that it is almost an military industrial complex, why not under the Ministry of Tourism? I don’t know, it’s up to them, we don’t understand it properly. However, given the situation, the sanction has been announced precisely because this company is a source of revenue for the State, which does what it does in Cuba and outside.
I would like to ask you one last question: when your government talks about the Cuban government, it usually talks about the Castros. Fidel Castro passed away many moons ago. Raul Castro is no longer the president, but continues to be the First Secretary of the PCC -which is the most important political position in the country-, and he has announced his retirement in 2021. How does the future of US-Cuba relations look to you? In a time when there is no longer a person with Castro for a surname in power?
Zúñiga-Brown: I’m going to give you an answer that might not be what you are looking for, but I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t predict the future. Like the wise Mexican Mario Moreno once said: “it’s in the details.” There are always details, in Cuba, like everywhere else. And if he has made this announcement, we have to see how this translates in reality.
So, we’ll have to wait for the future to see what happens. I don’t want to take up any more of your time. I know you have a busy agenda. Thank you so much for sitting down with us and giving us this interview to start off our third season, and I wish you the best of luck with your work in our country.
Zúñiga-Brown: Best of luck to you with your season and I wish the best to every Cuban.