Cuba & the US Rejoin the Hemisphere

US Department of State

This post is also available in: Portuguese (Brazil)

When the Western Hemisphere heads of state gathered in Panama on April 10 and 11th for the seventh Summit of the Americas, the questions on their minds were all about Cuba and the United States. The assembled leaders and many observers, including a massive global media presence, were asking: “What changes should be expected in US-Cuba relations?” “Are these two nations, bitter adversaries for half a century, ready to bury the hatchet, and normalize their relationship?” “How will warmer ties between Washington and Havana affect US-Latin American relations?”

To be sure, the Summit’s formal agenda included other issues and many countries came to Panama with their own axes to grind, but all other matters were eclipsed by the US-Cuba rapprochement, announced by presidents Obama and Raul Castro four months earlier.  This was the first Summit in which Cuba participated, and it featured the first meeting of a US and Cuban president since 1958. Although 31 other presidents and prime ministers attended the gathering, the spotlight was continuously focused on Obama and Castro. Their hour-long meeting dominated the news from the Summit.

Although excluded from past Summits and the activities of most other regional institutions, Cuba had become increasingly more active in inter-American affairs over the past decade or so. Beginning with Hugo Chavez in 1998, the election of many leftist governments in Latin America resulted in a succession of presidents and other senior officials traveling to Cuba. The island particularly attracted many leaders who had once participated in guerrilla movements or had been jailed for resisting military dictatorships, including Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Jose Mujica of Uruguay, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, and Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador.  Like Chavez, the presidents of the fiercely anti-US ALBA coalition (Alianza Bolivariana de las Americas), such as Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, were also frequent visitors.

In 2009, Cuba’s exclusion from the hemisphere’s flagship institution, the Organization of American States (OAS), was seriously debated for the first time. And supported by every Latin American and Caribbean nation, Cuba’s suspension from the organization was formally lifted. Although with considerable irritation and much resistance, the US went along with this overwhelming majority, but managed to secure agreement to the condition that Cuba “conform to the principles of the OAS.”   Raul Castro, however, not interested. He denounced the OAS as an instrument of the US, and has largely ignored it since then. Although it has given no indication yet, the Cuban government, as it develops its new relationship with the US, could well also consider participating in some fashion in the OAS. 

Finally, Cuba took on an increasing public role in regional affairs by agreeing, in 2012, to host the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla movement. Cuba assumed still another high profile role when Raul Castro was elected the third president of the newly formed Community of Latin American and Caribbean nations (CELAC) and hosted its 2014 meeting in Havana.  

At the last Summit, held in April 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia, Cuba’s involvement in inter-American institutions and activities emerged again as a contentious issue. Most Latin American leaders announced they would not take part in future summits unless Cuba was invited as a full participant. The US and Canada firmly resisted, claiming the Summit had been defined as a meeting of the hemisphere’s democratically elected governments. But it was clear that, without Cuba, there would probably not be another Summit meeting.

Almost immediately following the Cartagena meeting, the speculation began about how hard the US would continue to resist and whether the next host, Panama, one of the US’s closest allies, would extend an invitation to Cuba.  But soon after Varela was inaugurated as president in July 2014, the Panamanians signaled that they would indeed be inviting Cuba—and President Castro said he planned to attend.  The question then became whether and how the US might participate. Would Washington simply abandon the Summit, or would it send some one other than President Obama to represent the US? Or in the end, might Obama decide to join Raul Castro in Panama?

The question was decisively answered when Barack Obama in Washington and then Raul Castro in Havana announced plans to end a half century of US-Cuban hostility and restore normal relations. It is unlikely that the Summit was much of a factor in the decision of the two presidents to initiate a rapprochement, although it may well have affected the timing of their announcement. What might have turned out to be as an embarrassment to Obama or a source of further discord with Latin America, ended up being a clear triumph for both the American and Cuban presidents. The proposed reconciliation was universally applauded in Latin America and the Caribbean, and cheered throughout the world. It also enjoyed the support of a majority of Americans, and the great bulk of Cuba’s population.

The Road to Reconciliation

On December 17, 2014, following more than a year of secret negotiations, assisted by Pope Francis, Barack Obama in Washington followed by Raul Castro in Havana announced their plans to reestablish formal diplomatic ties and build a new, more constructive relationship.

This was an outcome that both governments had sought. President Obama, from the outset of his administration, made clear his intention to improve ties with Cuba—and early on relaxed some of the barriers to trade and travel with one of the US’s closest neighbors. The president signed executive orders allowing Cuban-Americans to send more money to relatives on the island and visit them more frequently. It became easier for all Americans to secure the permits needed for travel to Cuba. Additional unilateral initiatives had been expected, but US’s gradual opening largely came to a halt after the Cuban authorities jailed Alan Gross, a US contractor who had been clandestinely (and  illegally according to the Cubans) delivering internet and telecommunications equipment to Jewish groups (and perhaps others). By the end of 2014, Gross’s health was deteriorating, and both the Cubans and the Americans realized that his death in a Cuban jail, whatever the cause, would have dealt a major blow to any further thaw in relations. And the timing was just right for Obama. Once the November 2014 congressional elections were over, though they produced a massive defeat for the Administration and Democratic Party, President Obama was freed from many political obligations and more at liberty to pursue his own policy course.

For its part, the Cuban government had long been determined to secure the release of five Cubans who had been convicted of spying in the US. They were jailed for long sentences after a questionable trial in Miami in 2001—and have since been turned into heroic icons (know as the Cuba Five) by the Cuban leadership. In talks with the US, Cuba’s most insistent demand was the release of the three Cuban prisoners still behind bars. Interestingly, the prisoners on both sides, who had been the most formidable roadblock to any accord, became, instead, a principle driver of the US-Cuban negotiations. The Cuban leaders were also well aware that Venezuelan economy was in crisis and nearing collapse, and that the country’s political order was unstable and deteriorating. They understood that it was increasingly unlikely that the Caracas government could long sustain its massive subsidies to Cuba, which year after year have covered about one-half of the island’s huge trade deficits.

Since their accord in December, both the US and Cuba have been models of civility and professional diplomacy. The two nations have fully complied with all their agreements and promises. Their diplomats have now met on four occasions (twice in Washington and twice in Havana), mostly to work out the procedures for restoring diplomatic relations. Their most recent session, however, focused almost entirely on human rights issues, a topic on which the two countries profoundly disagree and do not hide their differences

The three Cuban prisoners and Alan Gross (along with a Cuban national who had  been imprisoned for 20 years after being caught serving as a US spy), were released just prior to the December announcement.  Subsequently, the Cubans set free 53 political dissidents, as had been agreed. The US increased more than fourfold the amount of remittances that individuals and families could send to Cuba, and substantially eased travel regulations. Though the ban on tourism remains, Washington now allows members of certain groups, including for example, academics, journalists, artists, and athletes, to travel freely to Cuba without prior permission. Air transport to Cuba has been expanded, new (although still limited) trade opportunities have been opened.

US-Cuban reconciliation efforts, in short, advanced relatively smoothly in the three months leading up to the April meeting of hemispheric leaders at the Summit of Americas in Panama.  Two incidents, however, revealed some underlying strains and continuing challenges, but both were resolved satisfactorily 

First, while presiding at the annual meeting of CELAC in Havana, President Castro suggested that the normalization of US-Cuban relations would require three major changes in US policy. One, the removal of Cuba from the list of terrorist supporting countries, had already been initiated by the Obama Administration. The other two, however, the lifting of the US trade embargo and return of Guantanamo Bay to Cuban sovereignty, would need congressional action and may require years to accomplish—and would thus put any return to normal diplomacy on hold. The Cuban president subsequently indicated that these two items were essential longer-term changes, but they would not stand in the way of restoring diplomatic ties or addressing other outstanding matters.

The second incident was more contentious and troublesome. Just three weeks prior to the Summit, the White House, in a poorly timed and badly executed maneuver, imposed sanctions on seven mid-level Venezuelan officials for human rights violations. Although the sanctions were inconsequential in themselves, an accompanying message from the State Department identified Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, as a serious danger to US security. Reacting to this exaggerated rhetoric (which normally accompanies such sanctions), Venezuela‘s President Maduro accused Washington of conspiring to sabotage his government—and called for the condemnation of US actions by Summit participants in their final declaration. He also initiated a campaign to collect signatures on a petition calling for US to withdraw the sanctions and extend an apology to Venezuela.

It was no surprise that the Cuban government, along with most other Latin American governments and many US commentators, strongly criticized the administration’s decision to punish Venezuela and declare the country a security threat.  Significantly, however, the US action did not stop a delegation of Cuban officials from traveling to Washington a week later to join their US counterparts for a previously scheduled exchange on human rights. Havana did not consider the sanctions on Venezuela, no matter how important an ally, sufficient reason to interrupt their negotiations with the US. 

It did not take long for the Obama Administration to recognize that it had made a mistake, and take steps to avert any unwanted impact on the Summit or on US-Cuba negotiations.  It publicly acknowledged that Venezuela, in fact, was not a threat to US security, and sent a highly regarded diplomat, former US Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon, to meet with Maduro and other Venezuelan authorities. The White House also sought the help of a few Latin American governments to reassure the Venezuelans.

The Summit of the Americas

At the Summit itself, as widely anticipated, attention was overwhelmingly focused on the US-Cuban rapprochement. Although 31 other presidents and prime ministers attended the gathering, the spotlight always seemed directed toward Obama and Castro. Across the globe, their meeting, the first since 1959 between the presidents of Cuba and the US, dominated the news about the Summit.

Only partially mollified by the Shannon visit, the Venezuelans, joined by a small number of other countries, were vocal in their criticism of the US sanctions. Perhaps at the urging of the Cubans, however, they were far less aggressive than had been expected, and attracted little support or attention.  Most of the assembled countries, it was clear, wanted the Summit to be about the reintegration of Cuba into hemispheric affairs and the US-Cuban reconciliation. They did not want the many divisions and conflicts in the region to detract from these central accomplishments.

The Cubans themselves were responsible for the most visible distraction. In the guise of civil society, the Cuban government had brought a group of belligerent supporters to Panama. Predictably, they openly clashed with opponents of the Cuban government.  And following that, they disrupted the proceeding of the Summit’s civil society forum to prevent the participation of Cuban dissidents and other adversaries.  For many, the fracas served as a vivid reminder of how free speech and association remain harshly repressed in Cuba.  Irritated US officials pressed the Cuban delegation to put a stop to the disruption, which they finally did. The forum, at which Obama spoke, was then able to proceed. Why the Cuban authorities allowed this confrontation to take place at all is still a puzzle, however.

Nothing surprising emerged from scheduled speeches of the two presidents. No one objected when Raul Castro spoke for nearly an hour (although each head of state had been allotted only eight minutes).  He presented a detailed history of the US government’s violations of Cuba’s sovereignty, its cumulative damage to the island’s economy, and its various efforts over many years to undermine the Marxist regime. Later, however, he apologized to Obama for his frankness, and praised both the US president’s honesty and decision to break with the past. Obama surely gained increased credibility and respect in Latin America by acknowledging the validity of many of Castro’s criticisms and making plain that the US was now committed to pursuing a more positive approach to the region. He was also able to point to several other recent US policy initiatives, regarding such issues as illicit drugs, immigration reform, special aid programs for violence ridden Central American countries, and increased support for Colombia’s peace negotiations, all of which were welcomed in Latin America.

The Summit participants were also cheered by the news that the US State Department had recommended that Cuba should no longer be considered a terrorist sponsoring nations. Once back in Washington, Obama formally confirmed that Cuba would be removed from that blacklist of US enemies, a decision that Congress will not be able to reverse.

For the Cuban government, this was an especially vital step. The country will now be able to conduct international banking transactions and is likely to attract increased foreign investment. Moreover, the US is no longer required to oppose loans to Cuba from the World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions.  In response, the Cuban authorities opened a new phase in the dialogue with the US by agreeing to a discussion about law enforcement cooperation, including attention to US fugitives who have been given refuge in Cuba.

With Cuba off the terrorist list, the political obstacles to formal diplomatic relations have now been addressed. Some logistical challenges remain, but there is every expectation that Cuba and the United States will soon transform their “interest sections” in Washington and Havana into full fledged embassies and have ambassadors in place to run them.

The Coming Period

In the past four months, the US and Cuba have made impressive progress toward renewing formal diplomatic bonds. The two governments also appear to have established a measure of mutual trust and respect.  The path, however, is likely to become steeper in the coming period. The crucial next steps, ending the embargo, for example, will require the approval of a Republican-dominated US Congress that is far from enthusiastic about the new relationship with Cuba. And the Cuban authorities will have to begin making decisions they have long resisted about opening their politics and economy.

So far, however, concerns that the US-Cuban reconciliation might be blocked by opposition groups in Washington and Havana have proven unfounded. Led by three Cuban-American senators, US opponents of a warmer relationship to Cuba have a powerful base in Congress.  Two of the senators are declared candidates for the Republican nomination for president; the third had been chair of the Senate International Relations Committee and then its most senior Democratic member, that is until corruption charges forced him to relinquish his leadership position earlier this year. All three Senators, along with three other Cuban American members of the House, fumed at Obama’s initiative and called for its reversal.

Surprisingly, few of their colleagues joined them in opposition. True, not many Republicans in Congress applauded Obama’s policy shift—but neither were they willing forcefully to challenges the changes proposed. Not even the removal of Cuba from the list of terrorist supporting countries met much resistance.  Moreover, public opposition to the policy shift on Cuba was muted. Hardly anyone showed up for street protests in Miami. The Cuban-American community, which had long been intensely hostile to any US opening toward Cuba, has moderated considerably in the past dozen years.  Polls today show the community evenly divided on Obama’s new approach to Cuba, with a clear majority of young people supporting reconciliation.

Unless the Cuba government was to frontally reject the course that presidents Obama and Castro have set out, the changes underway now appear irreversible.  The next US president could, in principle, bring Obama’s new Cuba policy to a halt. Several contenders for the Republican nomination have already pledged to do so. But such a turnabout would be disruptive to Cuban-American families and extremely damaging to US credibility in Latin America and elsewhere the world. It is hard to imagine that any president would be ready to reverse course unless the Cuban government backtracked on its commitments and restored a state of overt hostility to the US—which today appears highly unlikely.

President Castro also has to contend with many staunch opponents to change. These include many stalwarts, Los Historicos, who fought in the revolution and hold senior posts today, as well as a number of dissidents who want the US to keep its restrictions on the Cuban government until it commits to genuine political change. There have been, however, no public manifestations of the Cuban opposition and it is still impossible to gauge its significance. Little information is available on the position of the Cuban armed forces, which control many of the countries larger enterprises and exercise considerable political and economic authority.  The only visible skepticism in Cuba so far has come from Fidel Castro.  After nearly two weeks of silence, he tepidly approved his younger brother’s decision, but argued that it would take a long time for the two countries to overcome their deep, mutual mistrust. In contrast, two thirds of Cubans are optimistic that the ongoing steps to improve relations will lead to a better life on the island.

While is unlikely that the changes that have already occurred in US-Cuban relations will be reversed, it is still unsettled how much further reconciliation can progress.  In both the White House and Congress, though in varying degrees, the yardstick for judging the new approach to Cuba will be the extent to which it succeeds in advancing human rights, free expression, and political choice on the island. These are all top priorities on the US negotiating agenda.  The further easing of US restrictions and sanctions on Cuba will depend to a considerable extent on the Havana government’s willingness to open its politics and economy.

Cuba’s choices in the coming period will be decisive. There is little reason to doubt that the Cuban government is fully committed to improving relations with the US. It has little to gain from continued hostility, and a new relationship would provide a more hopeful future for its shaky economy, which may soon lose Venezuela’s financial  support. Still, from the day he and Obama announced their reconciliation plans, Raul Castro and other Cuban officials have repeatedly pledged that Cuba’s political and economic systems would remain fundamentally unchanged. The excruciatingly slow process of economic reform over the past eight years underscores the leadership’s rejection of systematic reform. It has yet to show any willingness to yield its centralized control.

​ Washington will have to show patience, which has never been its strong feature, and appreciate the limits of its influence on Cuba’s political evolution. It will take actions of the government and people of Cuba to bring about enduring changes. The US is right in urging Cubans to respect human rights and democratic principles, but it will need to keep its word to forego heavy handed demands, pressures, and deadlines. These could well backfire, increasing further the Havana government’s resistance to change.   Fidel Castro was surely correct in his prediction that restoring trust and rebuilding a relationship between these two long-term enemies will require time.

Some Consequences of a New US-Cuban Relationship

The largest potential impacts of the US-Cuban rapprochement will be in Cuba. Closer ties to Cuba will not alter US politics nor will they have much effect on the mammoth US economy. For the US, the most important change will likely occur in its relations with Latin America where, over time, US credibility should increase along with prospects for greater cooperation with the countries of the region.

An improved relationship with the US could contribute importantly to the health of the Cuba economy.  It certainly could prevent or soften a humanitarian crisis if the Cuba economy should stall. Over the longer run, stronger US ties should enhance Cuba’s prospects of building a sustainable economic order.  That will depend not only on the normalization of diplomatic ties, but the lifting of the US embargo—which would end the multiple barriers to trade, investment, remittances, and tourism that have long stood between the two countries, separated by a mere 100 miles of ocean. For example, ending the embargo would allow ships stopping in Cuba to travel immediately to the US; now they are barred from US ports for six months.  Cuba, in short, would gain access to the US’s immense market, its enormous flow of tourists, and its capital resources. It would also become a far more attractive place for foreign investment from many other nations. A changed relationship with the US would also open up opportunities for multilateral lending from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.  

But a central question is still unanswered. Will the Cuba authorities make the changes necessary to take advantage of the new opportunities? The island’s economic future—and the prospects it can offer to its citizens and outsiders—will mostly depend on Cuba’s success in pursuing a serious agenda of reform. On this score, history is not reassuring.

Washington relations with Latin America should get a boost from Obama’s new approach to Cuba, which was  heralded by every  participating head of state at the regional Summit, and from his Administration’s other recent Latin American initiatives. It would, nonetheless, be premature to predict major shifts in the substance or tone of inter-American relations.  Regardless of their display of goodwill at the Summit, most countries in Latin America remain wary and mistrustful of the United States—even as they pragmatically pursue cordial relations with Washington.  Justified by considerable historical experience, many Latin Americans have doubts about whether the United States will actually implement President Obama’s proposals and sustain them over time.  They know that that political change in Washington can produce sharp policy reversals.

Moreover, US ties with Latin American have been shaken and transformed in recent years by other powerful trends and issues. Regardless of their views of US policy, Latin American nations are far more independent from the United States than ever before. They are more confident and assertive, and have expanded and diversified their links across the globe. Washington’s bilateral relations with many governments have become more varied and complex, often involving both conflict and cooperation. As Latin America’s economies and institutions have gained strength, autonomy, and reach, the US has projected a lower profile and waning influence in the region. Moreover, the US once exercised considerable authority in the hemisphere’s multilateral institutions, but their importance has also substantially diminished.

Turning Away from a Hemispheric Framework

Brazil and many other Latin American countries have for some time been questioning whether the hemisphere provides an appropriate framework for conducting regional affairs. Increasingly they have viewed the OAS as irrelevant to their interests—and they often appear just as skeptical about the value of the Summit of the Americas. For the past decade, the OAS has been largely frozen out of any serious political role in the hemisphere, particularly in South America where the newly created Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has taken charge of addressing internal conflicts and regional disputes.

Recent changes in the global and regional landscapes, however, suggest that Brazil and other nations of South America may be acting precipitously in abandoning the hemispheric concept—and that they perhaps should reconsider their approaches to regional issues. Today the Western Hemisphere, including all of Latin America and the Caribbean along with the US and Canada, may well offer a framework for inter-American relations that serves the needs and interests of Latin American nations better than the sub-regional approach that is now in fashion.  

The advantages of close and cooperative economic relations with the US are amply recognized by most Latin American countries, including several who are generally hostile to the US. To be sure, over the past dozen years or so, most Latin American nations wisely expanded and diversified their global commercial relationships, and their economies have greatly benefitted. But they have also maintained significant economic ties to the US, which are now becoming more and more important as the region’s growth continues to slow in the context of a weakening global economy. Latin America’s division into two economic blocs—the eleven countries joined in free trade pacts with the US and the seven countries who are Mercosur members or prospective members—is probably not helpful. Progress toward hemisphere-wide commercial arrangements, with or without free trade provisions, could enhance the entire region’s economic prospects.

The Obama Administration, has revamped many of its policies toward Latin America, and today  they more aligned than ever with the region’s interests and approaches. The US decision to normalize decisions with Cuba was the most dramatic shift. A hemispheric framework will no longer require Cuba’s exclusion from regional activities and institutions. That roadblock to US-Latin American cooperation has been finally eliminated.

Although not widely noted, US anti-drug policies have also been substantially revised. Obama has declared an end to the US war on drugs, and urged countries to develop their own individual strategies and initiatives for dealing with drug-related problems. Although new approaches are emerging only slowly, Washington is no longer the hemisphere’s arbiter of drug policies.

The evolving course of US policy toward Cuba and drugs was heavily shaped by the most recent 2012 Summit in Cartagena, Colombia. It was in Cartagena  in 2012 where Latin American nations, despite the resistance of Washington, demanded that (1) Cuba be invited to the Panamanian Summit and (2) the OAS initiate a year-long study of alternative drug strategies.  The Summit outcome demonstrated that a hemispheric framework for inter-America relations can offer Latin American government important opportunities for shaping and constraining US policies. 

It is also true that the US can, at times, be helpful in addressing difficult challenges in Latin America. This is why both the Colombian government and the FARC rebels welcomed the US appointment of a special envoy to their peace negotiations in Havana.  Another example is the increasingly explosive situation in Venezuela, which Brazil and other South American governments have failed to confront effectively, despite their pledge to seek a solution more than a year ago. Whether the US could, in fact, make a useful contribution is far from certain. But a serious OAS debate about the Venezuelan crisis may have, at least, helped to avert the US misstep of declaring Venezuela a major security threat to the US, which has only fueled the crisis.

Finally, UNASUR and other sub-regional groupings simply do not have the resources or capacity to carry out the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, the Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, or the OAS’s election monitoring teams. Without a hemispheric approach, their vital efforts to protect human rights, democratic electoral procedures, and the rule of law would likely be severely curbed or not get done at all.  

Latin American governments do not have to make the choice between a hemispheric framework and a sub-regional approach to dealing with crises, conflicts, and other challenges in the Americas. UNASUR has taken on and successfully engaged several problems in South America. And there are good reasons to deal with some issues in sub-regional forums without the US. Regionalism will remain a powerful current in Latin America.  But, the potential importance of OAS and the Summits of the Americas in inter-American affairs should also be recognized. It may be time to reinforce and recast these institutions, not dismiss or diminish them. If the OAS and the Summits are failing in their mission, it is largely the result of decisions made by the member countries. With Cuba now reintegrating into hemispheric affairs, they may now want to consider changing course.


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