Cuba & US: Long Road Ahead

ESCLA / CC BY-SA 3.0

This post is also available in: Spanish

Added to the list of the most important dates in recent Cuban history – including Fidel Castro’s attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953 and the ultimate triumph of the Cuban revolution on January 1, 1959 – is now another: December 17, 2014.   On that day, US president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro simultaneously announced that they would move to normalize bilateral relations. Over half century of mutual hostility and estrangement would end.

By pure coincidence I happened to be in Havana on that date and was able to witness firsthand the Cuban reaction to this fundamental shift in US policy and the nature of the bilateral relationship.   The overall mood was optimistic, with some sectors (academics and diplomats, for example) quite elated, while ordinary Cubans — who had had hopes raised, then dashed, before – were notably more cautious and restrained. They welcomed the opening but Obama’s apt line (delivered in Spanish), “No es fácil,” particularly resonated with them.

What is striking in the months since the historic announcement is the will to move forward, in both Havana and Washington, in the long overdue rapprochement.   Of course, establishing diplomatic relations is the easy part. This means setting up embassies in both capitals – the US already has an “interest section” on the Malecon, with more than 50 US staff! –and designating ambassadors. On that regard, Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the list of states sponsoring terrorism – a baseless inclusion that was even more absurd than the embargo itself – helped pave the way.

The more difficult part of the new phase of the Cuba-US relationship will be achieving full normalization. For that to happen, the US Congress will have to put an end to the longstanding embargo that imposes severe restrictions on trade with Cuba. Obama supports lifting the embargo, as do many members of the US Congress, but that many members of the Republican majority want to keep the punitive policy in place until there is “democratic change” in Cuba.   Further progress toward reconciliation will demand other significant changes, including the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, which the US has controlled for 116 years.  Today, however, that issue is not on the agenda of the US government.

Yet, even though the prospects for lifting the embargo in the short term are dim, there is little question that Obama’s commitment to engage Cuba—abandoning a policy of economic pressure and diplomatic isolation— enjoys broad support in the United States. Polls show that even most Republicans and Floridians, where the traditionally more hardline Cuban American community lives, back the move towards greater openness and engagement.

However, certain Cuban-American political leaders, including Senators and presidential candidates Ted Cruz from Texas and Marco Rubio from Florida have sharply criticized the Obama administration’s new Cuba approach for appeasing a dictatorship without getting any concessions.   Rubio in particular, an appealing, top-tier candidate with strong convictions, has taken a particularly firm stand on Cuba. The senator will not abandon or soften his stand on Cuba, but he is a smart politician and will not to make this issue the centerpiece of his campaign. In fact, he barely mentioned it in a recent speech on foreign policy. The reality is that, especially given US increased trade with China, Vietnam and other non-democratic regimes, few Americans care about approaching Cuba.

The big question, of course, is how the Cubans will respond to the new environment. Tourism, a key sector that helps sustain the Cuban economy, has already increased substantially since the US/Cuba announcement.   There have been a number of missions to Cuba from the United States – a recent one led by Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York — exploring increased cooperation and commerce. According to many accounts, the island is full of talks of new possibilities and perspectives on further contacts.

Regardless, President Raul Castro is in a tough position. He clearly recognizes that his push for “reform” in the past few years has yielded disappointing results – the economy is not growing as expected and little foreign capital is coming in. Even if corporations and organizations in the US have been pushing to increase their role in Cuba, how much and how fast will the Cuban government move forward with legal reforms is uncertain. If the economic engagement with the US is successful, that could help Cuba have a “soft landing” in 2018, when Castro has said that he will give up control. On the other hand, for the Cuban government, opening up with Washington and “updating” the economy does not mean profound changes in the economic system, much less the political model.

It will also be fascinating to see what if any changes take place in the realm of Cuba’s civil society and politics. At the recent Summit of the Americas in Panama, the reconciliation between Obama and Raul Castro contrasted sharply with the unpleasant spectacle of violent confrontation between groups of Cubans closely aligned with the government and some dissidents. Cuba’s political future will depend on how the tension between hardliners, clinging to the old system, and more moderate reformers, including more centrist civil society groups, plays out. In this respect, the Pope Francisco’s upcoming visit to Cuba could be very important.

As a result of the December 17th announcement, there is also new space for more productive relations between the United States and Latin America.   For decades, there has been no greater irritant in that relationship than the disagreement over Washington’s Cuba policy. It was no surprise that throughout the region the joint decision by Obama and Castro was widely cheered and applauded.   That sentiment was on fully display at the Panama Summit, where there was a desire to celebrate and not permit the anti-American theme—spearheaded by Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro and revolving around an unfortunate US misstep to sanction seven Venezuelan officials— to overshadow the historic moment.

With a single stroke, Obama secured his legacy in Latin America.   In the history books, other issues during his tenure such as the 2009 Honduras coup, and even the handling of the Venezuela crisis, will be secondary. Cuba trumps everything else. If one now reviews the legacies of recent US presidents in the region, Obama stands out — compared, for example, to Clinton, associated with Plan Colombia, the first Summit and NAFTA, Bush (father) with debt relief and the Central American peace agreements, and even Carter, who championed human rights during a period of authoritarian rule in South America and negotiated the Panama Canal treaty.

Obama deserves credit for his decision, but Cuba is not Latin America. Longstanding suspicions and resentments towards Washington persist, and the United States will have a new president in January 2017. There is still a long way to go to build better relations on a wide-ranging agenda between the United States and the region. That agenda was barely discussed at the Panama Summit. It will be crucial to evaluate the overall state of the US-Latin American relationship, along with progress in Cuba, at the next Summit that is scheduled to take place in three years in Peru.


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