Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research center on Western Hemisphere affairs in Washington, D.C., said Cuban officials “think they've made some pretty big gestures, the kinds of gestures that successive American governments have asked for. They thought they were putting something really valuable on the table and that the United States would match it.
“It’s sort of like the story of the kid who was told by his father to go to his friend's tailor to make a bar mitzvah suit. He's a very good tailor. The father says - Offer him only half of what he asks for because he overcharges. The kid goes to the tailor and the tailor says - I'll make you a beautiful suit, a beautiful pair of pants, for $20.
“The kid says - $10.
“The tailor says - I can't do it for $10. But since I’ve known your father for so long, I'll do it for $10.
“The kid says - $5! And this goes on for a while. The tailor finally says - OK, I'll do it for nothing.
“The kid says - Two pairs of pants!
“That’s the way the Cubans are feeling.”
Hakim said he wants to be clear he does not sympathize with leaders of the socialist government.
“Let me get on the record, they are the SOBs in many respects. They’ve they've screwed up that country so badly.
“I get a kick when I read some of the stuff that comes out from the Left about how Cuba does so well on these educational exams, and they have the highest rate of high school graduation of any country in Latin America. I say – that’s great, but what are they being trained for? To be clowns on the streets? To do sugarcane work?
“I mean, it's tragic. Cuba is a great place to grow up until you begin to think and read. Life is very close to the margin. Diets are very bad, I think.
“Phil Peters (creator of The Cuban Triangle blog) doesn't agree with me on this. He's more hopeful the so-called economic reforms can make a difference. I don't believe it.”
Hakim has advised the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Council on Competitiveness, according to his biography.
He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has testified before Congress more than a dozen times.
He believes Raul Castro’s economic measures are too limited to be successful.
“When I see the Greeks, who have this great history of small enterprise going back three millennium, and they're now up to 15 to 18 percent unemployment. And Cuba has no experience, no money. Unemployment is going to jump. They're not going to be able to do it. You can't do this halfway.”
The Cuban government must do more than legalize employment in 178 private-sector jobs, he said.
“In Cuba, everything is prohibited except that which is on the list. Well, you know, small entrepreneurs tend to make it when they suddenly think of something which isn't on the list. They're not only going to shine your shoes, they’re going to box your hat, and well, that's not on the list.”
Meantime, he said, economic conditions remain grim.
“I think that Cuba is...one or two steps from what I would call a pretty bad humanitarian crisis. Cuba is living from hand to mouth. I mean, you don't one day to the next say - I'm going to fire 20 percent of the workforce - when it's not close to a catastrophe.”
Hakim doesn’t believe meaningful change will come to Cuba until Fidel and Raul Castro are no longer on the scene.
“These two old guys are now running the country. Well, you know, you look at the revolution in the Middle East, there wasn't a single dynastic regime that changed its spots with the old leadership in place. And in fact, I've had a hard time going through world history and seeing where we've seen a despot suddenly turn into a democrat, or a despot even making the first steps.”
Deep reforms don’t happen in many countries “without some kind of really wrenching change in leadership.”
In the U.S., Hakim does not expects big changes in policy toward Cuba during the remainder of President Barack Obama’s term in office.
“With an election soon to come, I don't expect anything right now. Maybe I’m being cynical. The political forces are just so lined up against it, with Illeana Ros-Lehtinen chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House, Connie Mack chairing the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, and Eliot Engel being the ranking member.
“In the Senate, (John) Kerry and Dick Lugar are very reasonable. Lugar would - just like that - change U.S. policy, but you know who's in charge of the Western Hemispheres Subcommittee - Marco Rubio, and (Robert) Menendez is the chair. You've got Cubans all over. I mean, they're all at the choke points.”
Regulations on travel and remittances have been loosened under the Obama administration, Hakim said.
The new rules “really do open up the remittance thing very widely, not only to more individuals but NGOs can now send money to Cuba.”
“Travel has been loosened up. Part of the problem is what the law says. The other is how the president and the White House interpret the law.”
Under the Bush administration, “the presumption was...if you're going to Cuba, you're going for the wrong reason. Unless you have absolute permission, it's prohibited. I think we've moved now to a position where the presumption is if we catch you doing anything wrong, you're in trouble. Now it's more toward the middle of the spectrum.
“We're going to look over your shoulder a little bit, but...if a little league team from Fresno says they’re going to Cuba, the presumption is that they’re going to play baseball. They're not going to buy contraband cigars. Or that ballet from Baltimore - they’re going go there to dance, not to enjoy the beaches.”
Travel policy has shifted from “everything is prohibited except that which is expressly permitted to now everything is permitted that isn't expressly prohibited.”
That doesn’t mean immigration and customs officials enforce travel policy evenly because “not everybody in all the bureaucracies has bought this. To really see a change, this is going to have to go on for a while. A lot of this is bureaucratic, and bureaucrats are often very cautious.”
Hakim believes all Americans should be allowed to travel to Cuba.
“I think they should just get rid of all these restrictions and treat Cuba like other countries. If it's dangerous to travel there, Americans should be told that. If Cuba is a violator of human rights, they should be told that. We don't prevent Americans from traveling anywhere else.”
He also disagrees with the so-called embargo.
“I think it's been a big fracaso,” he said, using the Spanish word for “failure.”
“This is one of those things. We say a couple more days and it'll be over, but 50 years is a long time. By focusing so intently on this set of restrictive practices, it becomes the whole politics of Cuba, whether to lift them or sustain them or deepen them. The whole notion of developing any other strategy toward Cuba just goes out the window.”
That’s not to say that flooding Cuba with tourists will somehow trigger a democratic opening, he said.
“I get equally angry when people who support lifting the embargo tell me - This will help the economy. This begin to force an opening of the society. I don't think that's a case that can be made honestly, either, frankly.”
Reducing economic sanctions will help ordinary Cubans, but it will also boost the socialist government, he said.
“There's no question that when you try to help the people you almost inevitably end up helping the country. So there is leakage. To argue that somehow if we lifted this embargo that the Cuban government wouldn't gain something, there's no question. Cuba would get an extra million tourists a year. It would be a huge difference.”
Asked about U.S.-government democracy programs in Cuba, Hakim said,
“Would the United States do that in China? Probably not. It's just too risky. It's too inflammatory to our relationship. Would they do it in a place like Syria? Maybe it’s a little too dangerous there, although they might do it there.
“Frankly, the Cuba money is so symbolic. It's been used in such rotten ways. I mean, the nonsense of keeping TV Marti afloat. The democracy money for a long time was being spent in Miami in a way that had little impact....it's guided by U.S. politics...many groups in Cuba would prefer that the U.S. didn't do this.”
Hakim said the U.S. takes a more unilateral approach in Cuba than it did, for instance, in Chile during the 1970s.
He was living in Chile during the 1973 military coup and said that while the U.S. government opposed Gen. Augusto Pinochet “toward the last years, it sort of listened to what the opposition was saying.
“In Cuba, you know, we do this for our reasons. I mean, we don't really consult with the Catholic Church. We don't consult with what you might call above the horizon NGOs.”
Asked why the U.S. treats Cuba differently, Hakim said, “It's closer historically. There's what? 600,000 Cubans in Miami who are very political mobilized. Florida's a swing state. If Florida was clearly a blue state or a red state, we might have lifted the embargo already. But the fact is, it hinges on a tiny number of votes and electoral votes are very valuable there.
“The Cuban money plays a big role. The Cuban votes play an important role. There's one other thing that's worth looking at: There's a remarkable coincidence between supporters of Israel and supporters of the tough stance on Cuba.
“The United States is now supported by only one other country in sustaining the embargo - Israel. There is a crossing of the money trails with regard to Cuban and Jewish money for campaigns.
“I think the Jews support Cuba to get the Cuban support for Israel and vice-versa. It's a very simple marriage of convenience and Israel pays a small price. You know, they sort of make this odd vote every year. I think that's to keep the Cubans happy more than anything.
“The tough supporters of (Benjamin) Netanyahu and the Israeli right do have some things in common. But I don't think that the Jews care one whit about Fidel, and I don't think the Cubans care one whit about Israel except that they support each other now.”
Although Hakim disagrees with U.S. policy toward Cuba, he believes government agencies that enforce Cuba regulations have become less political under the Obama administration.
“There's still a great deal of stupidity in all this, but... I was told that they've really cleaned out a lot of the ideological stuff from the various bureaucracies. In other words, whether it was AID or Treasury or OFAC, people that got close to Cuba policy were Cubans or hangers-on the Cuban community who really took a sort of ideological strong view.
“Now you don't have people in these places who are great advocates of opening Cuba. But you're getting more sort of bureaucrats who are rather indifferent to the whole thing. They're just doing their job, which is a 100-percent improvement...you get somebody ideological and...if they think someone’s violating the spirit of the regulations, then somehow it's their greater mission for the greater good to them out of Cuba.”