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News, Research and Events from Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy
Baker Institute Update: Cuban ambassador speaks at institute; Inside the Iran nuclear deal
April 21, 2016: In this edition
Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez on the future of U.S.-Cuba relations 

Full normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations will require time and careful bilateral deliberations, His Excellency José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, ambassador of Cuba to the U.S., said at a recent Director’s Lecture Series event at the Baker Institute.
Cabañas gave an overview of progress since the restoration of diplomatic ties, including the signing of a series of agreements on aviation, postal service and agricultural issues that are expected to eventually boost travel and collaborations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Other issues that remain to be addressed through a commission of U.S. and Cuban negotiators include law enforcement, human rights, the environment and public health.  
“In other scenarios, you have a bible or a reference book, and you can check a paragraph or page for instructions. In this case, we don’t have a reference book. We actually have to discover everything,” Cabañas said.
Reaching a consensus on these issues will involve building trust between negotiators from the U.S. and Cuba as they share information and work toward finalizing agreements, Cabañas said.
Cuba wants to see the U.S. lift all sanctions against Cuba and establish trade avenues with the country in order to fully normalize ties, Cabañas said. The country also wants Guantanamo Bay returned to Cuban control.
Cabañas said signs of progress include the U.S. removing Cuba from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism, as well as steady visits from top U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama and key cabinet members. Several companies have also signed agreements to do business in Cuba, such as Starwood Hotels, Western Union, and phone carriers like Sprint, AT&T and Verizon, he said. 

In addition, the number of Americans visiting Cuba jumped by 77 percent in 2015, while a record 298,000 Cuban-Americans visited the island in the same period, Cabañas said.
There have been a few hiccups, however. For example, while Carnival signed an agreement to begin adding Cuba to cruise itineraries, the island remained on a U.S. list of countries with unsafe ports until March 2016, preventing the company from actually docking in Cuba.
Cabañas also said that after the December 2014 announcement of the restoration of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties, U.S. agencies amended some regulations toward Cuba, but the measures did little to advance progress between the countries.  
“You had people writing regulations on banking services that had never talked to our officials in the field,” Cabañas said. “Let’s have a dialogue among regulators … to try to understand how our system works in order to produce regulation that actually helps accomplish something.”

Cabañas refuted perceptions that Cuba is moving too slowly or rejecting proposals from U.S. entities, saying that the U.S. sanctions still in place represent a greater hindrance to progress.
“We don’t have, in Cuba, any ruling that prevents any American company in any field to do business with Cuba. We don’t have to remove the U.S. from any list, we don’t have a sanctions regime on the U.S.,” Cabañas said.
Even with the challenges ahead, both countries stand to benefit from normalized ties. For example, Cuba and the U.S. have shared environmental and public health interests, such as combating oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico or controlling the spread of tropical diseases like the Zika virus, Cabañas said.
“Strategic dialogue between adversaries is a key component of democracy and a way to determine common ground to help resolve differences,” Baker Institute Director Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian said in his opening remarks. “The time is well past for the United States and Cuba to move forward.”

Click here for a video of Ambassador Cabañas' remarks and a Q&A session moderated by Ambassador Djerejian. 

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Inside the Iran nuclear deal

The lengthy negotiations that produced the Iran nuclear arms agreement often mirrored a Rubik’s Cube in that all the pieces had to align properly in order to solve the puzzle, former Under Secretary of Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said at an April 14 Baker Institute event on U.S.-Iran relations.
Sherman, who served as the lead negotiator for the United States on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, gave an insider account of the deliberations during her keynote address at the conference. The event, sponsored by the Center for the Middle East and the Center for Energy Studies, examined the key policy issues and implications of the nuclear agreement.
“Debates on the merits of the agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 have been as intense in Iran as here in the United States,” Baker Institute Director Edward P. Djerejian said.
“As we move deeper into the presidential campaign and closer to a new presidential administration, there could not be a better time to examine where we stand on one of President Obama’s most significant policy initiatives, one that may constitute one of the defining legacies of his presidency, or — hopefully not — unravel in mutual recrimination and regret.”
Negotiations involved both individual and one-on-one talks with Iran, P5+1 members, European Union countries and the Gulf States, as well as deliberations within U.S. government and Congress, Sherman said.
The Rubik’s Cube served as a constant analogy throughout the process — the U.S. negotiations team even made custom models of the puzzle with each square listing all of the issues at stake.
“You move any element this way, and another element moves that way,” Sherman said. “So you can’t say, ‘Gosh, I wish we’d done more here,’ because if you’d done more there, you would have had to do less somewhere else, or the deal wouldn’t have locked into place. All of the elements are gives and takes on all sides.”
She attributed the successful signing and implementation of the nuclear deal to a mix of fortuitous timing, leverage and political will between all parties to reach an agreement. She also gave credit to President Barack Obama for laying out a clear objective and parameters for the agreement — i.e., that Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon — and praised negotiators from the participating countries for remaining focused on the talks amid intense international pressure.
Sherman also described a moving moment during the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on July 14, 2015, in Vienna. Secretary of State John Kerry said he’d pushed so hard for the nuclear deal in part due to his combat experiences in Vietnam, which spurred a lifelong commitment to ending the world’s wars. His remarks drew applause from the entire room, Sherman said.
“Everyone understood. Everyone had fought for the same thing — for peace, not for war,” Sherman said.

Click here for videos of Ambassador Sherman's keynote address on the events that led to the historic agreement and panel discussions on U.S.-Iran relations. 

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