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United States Must Make Freedom the Anchor of Cuba Negotiations

By: José Azel - May 23, 2016, 10:39 am
US President Obama shakes hands with Cuba President Raul Castro (wikimedia)

EspañolArgentinean writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges was once invited to deliver a speech at a conference at the University of San Marcos de Lima. By then he was elderly and blind, and Peru was under a “progressive” military dictatorship. Borges, a classical liberal, was outspoken against the Peruvian military authoritarianism just as some of us are uncompromising against the Cuban totalitarian dictatorship.

At the University’s conference hall, Borges was accosted by strident “progressive” students harshly protesting his attendance. When the impudent students, tired of insulting him, finally became silent, Borges was asked by one of them: “How is it possible for an intelligent person like you to hold unpopular positions that go against the course of history?”

Borges calmly replied: “Listen, young man, don’t you know that only gentlemen and ladies defend lost causes?”

This Borges anecdote came vividly to mind as I reflected on President Obama’s trip to Cuba, and how standing up for freedom and democracy there has become a quixotic fight.

For nearly six decades, Cubans opposing the Castro regime have anchored their struggle on the fundamental principle of a free Cuba. Freedom was always the guiding conceptual anchor. That anchor, however, has now been replaced by a new anchor of diplomatic and economic ties with the Castro dictatorship. The change in U.S. policy is not presented by supporters as an abandonment of the principle of freedom. Instead, they defend the new policy as more realistic given that a free Cuba appears to be a lost cause.

To fully understand the damage to the aspiration for freedom inflicted by this re-anchoring of U. S. policy, it is necessary to apprehend the powerful role anchoring plays in negotiations. As any experienced business negotiator knows, an anchor establishes a reference point around which a negotiation will revolve.

Nobel Peace Prize recipient Professor Daniel Kahneman was one of the first researches to study anchoring. He explains that anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes our tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information offered. Once an anchor is set, we use it to make most subsequent judgments. For example, the offering prize for a house anchors the house value (real or not) and most purchasing offers use it as a starting point. We have a bias toward interpreting offers around the anchor.

Studies show that once a negotiating anchor is set, the process of offers and counteroffers tends to revolve only around the anchor. That is, a deliberate starting point strongly affects the range of possible counteroffers. General Raul Castro has masterfully set an anchoring trap for the United States by forcefully and repeatedly anchoring Cuba’s position on the elimination of U.S. economic sanctions, the return of the Guantanamo Naval Base, and on billions of dollars of reparation to Cuba for the supposed damages caused by the U.S. embargo.

Notice how the discourse of the new U.S. Cuba policy revolves exclusively on negotiations around trade and diplomatic issues and we hear no discussions about political freedoms. At most, we hear the Unites States will continue to bring up the topic of human rights. General Castro set his anchor and our policymakers have failed to understand the trap they are in, or to adjust accordingly.

Professor Kahneman’s advice is as follows: “…if you think the other side has made an outrageous proposal, you should not come back with an equally outrageous counteroffer … Instead you should make a scene, storm out or threaten to do so, and make it clear — to yourself and to the other side — that you will not continue the negotiations with that number on the table.”

I see no evidence that U.S. negotiators are prepared to follow Professor Kahneman’s advice and return to the anchor of freedom so that all discussions revolve around that topic. In fact, U.S. negotiators seem determined to accommodate General Castro at every step. Freedom cannot emerge from a process that avoids mentioning freedom.

The cause of a free Cuba is not forever lost; however, it may very well be, to paraphrase Borges, that only gentlemen and ladies defend lost causes.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.