Cuba and the US

Borja / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On Monday, December 22nd, the Inter-American Dialogue and Brookings Institution held a public meeting to discuss the renewal of U.S.-Cuban Relations in light of presidents’ Obama and Castro’s announcement last Wednesday. This was the first public event in Washington D.C. on the issue, and it featured the Dialogue’s president emeritus Peter Hakim, Brookings’ senior fellow for foreign policy Ted Piccone, and the Cuba Study Group’s Carlos Saladrigas. Michael Shifter, who was in Cuba at the time of the historic announcement, moderated the discussion. With more than 120 participants, including colleagues from the Cuban Interest Section, this was one of the Dialogue’s most vibrant discussions of the year.

The conversation began by analyzing some of the factors that brought about this unprecedented move. All participants agreed that president Obama saw the need for a new strategy. In fact, his speech not only pointed to the importance of developing a new relationship, but accepted that the United States had failed in its strategy towards Cuba over the past decades. Obama, thus, took this as an opportunity to secure his legacy regarding foreign policy towards Latin America, an area that he has otherwise overlooked throughout his presidency. Indeed, participants predicted, the announcement will usher in a new era of U.S.-Latin America relations where the North American power will no longer be seen as a bully that stubbornly sticks to an unsuccessful and exclusively unilateral strategy of blockade. Piccone commented how this announcement depicts a United States that is much more committed to multilateralism and cooperation in the Western Hemisphere than before. The fact that it has agreed to attend the Summit of the Americas despite Cuba’s participation shows its willingness to engage, rather than to simply impose.

Shifter mentioned Venezuela as an important external factor in pushing Cubans to open up more to the United States. Cuba’s most important ally in the region, Venezuela subsidized the island’s economy by supplying it with 100,000 barrels of oil per day, a luxury that Cuba will no longer be able to count on due to Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis. Saladrigas agreed, stressing that Venezuela’s indirect role could not be emphasized enough. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how a Venezuela reacts. Maduro will be pressured to rethink its relationship with the United States, especially now that Cuba, the poster child for anti-U.S. rhetoric, has decided to rapproach its long-time foe.

Speakers also agreed that the decision was fueled by a desire to see Cuba prosper. They expect that the measures outlined by President Obama will promote important political and economic interactions that will help the Cuban people and that will push Castro to liberalize the island, even if only slowly and gradually. While Obama’s executive powers do not allow him to lift the blockade, Saladrigas predicts that the embargo has been “mortally wounded,” and that Congress will not be able to reverse what has already been set in motion. According to the participants, Republican hard-liners that oppose Obama’s decision will find little support amongst a population of Cuban-Americans, and Americans at large, that want a full economic relationship with the island. Saladrigas went as far as to say that Rubio’s reaction to the announcement made him seen “unpresidential.”

Despite all the excitement, the experts remained cautious from making any bold predictions. Hakim remarked how Cuba is in dire economic straits and saw this step as its only way out of an otherwise disastrous crisis. While renewed relationships with its North American neighbor is an important step for economic advancement, it is still going to be difficult for the island to resolve deeply entrenched infrastructure and productivity issues. Likewise, any effort by the United States to engage economically with Cuba must be coupled with an equal will to cooperate from the island’s government. And for a regime that has historically exercised full control over its citizens, economic engagement will require a degree of liberalization that the government might not feel very comfortable accommodating.

Most importantly, a normalization of relations will now push Cuba to view its problems as its own, and not as a result of failed and unfair U.S. policy. Saldrigas adequately remarked, “the more normal we treat Cuba, the more difficult it will be for the country to behave exceptionally.” Whether Cuba will remain an exception (it is the only country in the Americas without any democratic institutions) is yet to be seen. But as the experts remarked, this was an exciting, historic, and bold decision that will hopefully mark the end of Latin America’s long Cold War.


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