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Latin America

Montes Release and the Implications on US-Cuban Relations

A number of updates in Cuba-US relations emerged as 2023 began. While contention and long-standing ideological differences remain, it appears that the developments in relations between the countries are signs of improvement.

Ana Montes was released from prison on January 6th, after serving 20 years of her 25-year sentence. Montes was recruited by Cuban Intelligence Services in 1984, after which she became an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. She rose to prominence, becoming “the DIA’s top Cuban analyst” and finding respect for her expertise in the region. She continued to spy for Cuba until her arrest in 2001.

Montes’ release from prison is notable; US persons convicted of espionage are generally given lengthy prison sentences and are incarcerated in high-security prisons. Rarely are they granted early release. Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, and Walter Kendall Myers are perhaps the three most prominent US spies against the US, and all were given life sentences in prison. And while Montes’ release after 20 years in prison may not seem particularly significant, its timing and proximity to other events concerning the US and Cuba hint at a potential change in the two countries’ relations.

On January 4th the US Embassy in Havana reopened the visa and consulate operations for the first time since 2017. It was partially closed following a wave of unexplained illnesses suffered by US diplomats and their families. More than six years later, there is still no diagnosis for the illness which many US officials in Havana believe to be the aftermath of some sort of “sonic attack.” The medical anomaly became a point of contention between Cuba and the United States with many believing it was the result of electromagnetic or biological terrorism from the Cuba government or other Cuban actors. The Cuban foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, continuously asserted that Cuba had nothing to do with the alleged attacks but the State Department issued a statement for Americans considering traveling to Cuba, warning that they could face “unusual risks.” The statement was later followed by the 2017 ban on travel to Cuba by then-President Trump.

The April 2022 discussion on the implementation of the US-Cuba immigration accords was also likely a factor in reopening the Havana Embassy. In the first discussion between Cuba and US officials on this topic since 2018, the safe and orderly migration of Cubans to the United States was highlighted as a mutual goal. The Cuban Family Reunification Parole Programme (CFRP), which allows citizens to apply for parole allowing their Cuban family members to enter the US, resumed partially as a result of this discussion. The reopening of the Embassy will allow the US to process and handle the significant increase in attempted migration from Cuba; it is estimated that “approximately 2% of Cuba’s total population” attempted to immigrate to the US in 2022.

The reopening of the Havana Embassy, the reinstatement of the CFRP, and the lifting of the Cuba travel ban by the Biden administration all indicate that relations with Cuba are improving. Still, the last seven decades have been strenuous between Cuba and the United States; this historically poor relationship remains visible in current events. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel made a statement in December blaming the continued US embargo for the government’s economic failure. He did, however, recognize other factors that contribute to the financial crisis in Cuba, including government management of the economy; for reference, the inflation rate in Cuba is running at approximately 40%.

Furthermore, ongoing human rights violations continue to be a barrier to improving US relations with Cuba. The most current updates report that there are 1,034 people detained in Cuba for “political motives.” With this figure, Cuba surpasses the combined number of political prisoners in Nicaragua and Venezuela, the other two Latin American countries notably holding political prisoners. President Biden released a statement last month reiterating that he, and the United States, holds accountable “Cuban officials” responsible for the violence against and imprisonment of individuals who “bravely exercised their fundamental freedoms.”