When Mark Schneider drafted the U.S. government’s plan for a Cuban transition back in the late 1990s, it was mocked by Cuba as a theoretical exercise that wasn’t going to transpire anytime soon. Now, nearly two decades later, the leaders of both countries have unveiled a dramatic plan that paints transformation in Cuba as an imminent reality.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s bold declaration to build a U.S. embassy in Cuba, ease travel and trade restrictions, develop Cuba’s business environment and telecommunications, and conduct a prisoner exchange appeared to come out of nowhere.
Schneider, though, was contemplating such changes long before last week.
In a rare and exclusive interview with Devex, Schneider — who now works as senior adviser at the International Crisis Group — shared his thoughts about a plan that, in many ways, echoes the one he drafted almost 20 years ago during Bill Clinton’s presidency. His analysis of the challenges associated with a warming of relations between the United States and Cuba ring as true today as they did then.
Schneider first developed an interest in Cuba as a freshman fellow for then-U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy in 1970, when he wrote Kennedy’s first speech on Cuba, that was viewed as progressive for its time for its invocation of human rights as the foundation to critique U.S. Cold War policy.
“The headline was the criticism of the Cold War aspect of the Alliance for Progress, criticism of the embargo and calling for the kind of engagement that the president announced yesterday,” Schneider said, pausing to reflect on the re-engagement of Cuba. “So it’s been a long time coming.”
Though times have changed, the U.S. government will face similar challenges as it seeks to further engage with the regime of President Raul Castro, especially security concerns and the need to prop up Cuba’s banking sector so investment and aid can begin to flow.
Obama will also have to grapple with a Republican-controlled Congress that may not be in the mood for compromise.
In 1993, amid the fallout of the volatile pro-communist revolutions and civil wars in Central America, Schneider became the assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
It was in this time that he first drafted the visionary plan on Cuba.
“We looked at the challenges Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala faced, and the premise was there was somehow an end to the Castro regime and the question was what would happen next, what would be the challenges,” Schneider said.
Though critics at the time questioned whether whether planning ahead for a post-isolated Cuba instead of addressing the current situation was the right approach, Schneider said his task was to be forward-thinking on the challenges Cuba would experience after a transition had taken place.
While the full details of Obama’s plan remain to be disclosed, the points that have been publicized focus on similar areas Schneider did almost 20 years ago: amping infrastructure- Cuba’s weak transportation network, communications and Internet facilities, ports, airports and electricity (Cuba is heavily dependent on Venezuelan gas and fuel), and supporting Cuba’s social service institutions and small businesses.
So what does Schneider’s think about the new plan?
“The rhetoric is good,” he said, explaining that reducing political prisoners, expanding Internet access and allowing human rights monitors to re-enter Cuba sends “a strong statement that human rights remains high on the the agenda in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.”
Many observers remain skeptical of the practical implementation of the plan, questioning how donors can fund nongovernmental organizations without effectively funding the Cuban government.
Start with the private sector, Schneider recommended: “Go and set up a banking structure where Cuban public and private entities could use the international banking system easily including foreign investment in Cuba.”
Foreign support will be pushed the most, he suspects, since it will relieve Cuba from any fear of sanctions from the United States.
Schneider seemed most optimistic about economic reforms — financial and technical assistance to Cuban small businesses to strengthen the private sector that the Cuban regime now permits.
And U.S. aid implementers, he speculated, will eventually be able to work with Cuban NGOs, although they might need to fund teachers with a government curricula, or fund clinicas that participate in government public health campaigns, all of which still need “real delivery services by NGOs.”
The toughest aspect of grappling with a Cuba emerging from a repressive state for Schneider was managing security sector reform — revamping old police, military, community policing and law. But because his plan was not expected to transpire anytime soon, he did not face the heat from Congress that Obama does today.
“Our report wasn’t the subject of partisan argument because it was based on assumptions of a change which clearly was not about to happen in the next day or two,” Schneider said.
Schneider praised Obama for doing “just as much as he can do” by executive order, but noted that fully removing all restrictions requires legislative action, which is appearing to pose a challenge in today’s polarized congressional atmosphere.
Pausing to reflect on how far U.S.-Cuba policy has come since his days as a young staffer, Schneider laughed.
“I’ve got to go back and look at my old report now,” and beamed, “After 50 years to call Raul Castro and mark an end — it’s … Cold War policy that should’ve ended with the Berlin Wall.”
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