World leaders have welcomed the historic deal reached between Cuba and US on easing their diplomatic tensions and restrictions as a concerted aim to reverse 50 years of hostility.While the agreement is seen as the major achievement in the diplomatic relations between the two countries it leaves nonetheless a long road ahead to normalise completely the relations and inevitably raise the major question on the embargo’s fate.
US-Cuban relations are frozen since early sixties, becoming the best synonym of Cold War antagonism: US failed attempt at the Bay of Pigs, the near nuclear holocaust in the missile crisis, a long list of failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, Cuban military actions in Africa, support for Latin American guerrillas, the infamous embargo to strangle the regime and its people.
The two presidents, Barak Obama for US and Raul Castro for Cuba, in a contemporary TV speech announced the end of travel restrictions and efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations following more than a year of secret talks in Canada and at the Vatican, directly involving Pope Francis. The Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, whose country never broke off ties with Cuba, welcomed what he called an “overdue development”. Pope Francis joined leaders from Latin America and Europe in praising the historic deal.
As part of the deal, US contractor Alan Gross, 65, was released from Cuban prison in return for three Cubans held in the US. President Obama also said the US was looking to open an embassy in Havana in the coming months. In exchange for Alan Gross, who was in poor health, and an unnamed American intelligence officer, Washington released three members of the so-called “Cuban Five” who were serving lengthy sentences for espionage.
In addition, it has also been agreed that the amount of money, which can be sent in remittances, will quadruple from $500 (£320) to $2,000 per quarter. Telecom providers will be allowed to improve Cuba’s infrastructure so that more Cubans can access the internet. Cubans will also be able to import construction materials to build private homes, a move aimed at easing the severe shortage of suitable homes on the island. Travel restrictions to Cuba will be relaxed, making family visits and cross-border humanitarian projects easier.
Reactions: same old, same old
The reactions around the world welcomed in large part the agreement and mark even more, if there any need, the total distance from reality of those opposing the deal.
The European Union, which is in the process of normalising ties with Cuba, described the move as a “historical turning point”. All Latin American countries hailed the announcements as a historic day for the entire subcontinent. Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz hailed it as “the beginning of the end of the Cold War in the Americas”. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose predecessor Hugo Chavez was a close ally of Fidel Castro, said it was a “moral victory” and “victory for Fidel”.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said increased US engagement in Cuba in the future should “encourage real and lasting reforms for the Cuban people and the other nations of the Americas should join us in this effort”.
However, not everyone applauded the move, with dozens of Cubans living in exile in the US state of Florida protesting after the announcement on Wednesday. Mainly they see this as a betrayal, a unilateral concession to Castro’s regime and accuse Obama of being a traitor. Hardliners within the Republican Party, like Senator Marco Rubio, slammed the deal as “inexplicable”, adding that it did nothing to address the issues of Cuba’s political system and human rights record.
The important community of Cuban bloggers welcomed in large measure the deal, seeing in this a great opportunity for a growth of Cuban civil society and a step forward for political progress.
However, the power to lift the embargo stay within the US congress, dominated by Republicans, and although even the media are calling for a lifting, signalled a shift among US opinion makers for a softening of the US stance on Cuba, it is clear that a long and difficult battle awaits Barak Obama. He is likely to face stiff opposition from representatives from Florida, where many Cuban exiles who fled Castro’s Cuba settled. Florida Senator Marco Rubio promised on CNN to block the nomination of any US ambassador to Cuba and other anti-Castro legislators suggested Congress would remove funding for any normalised ties with the country. However, if it is true that this anti-Castrist block is still powerful and may have also ears in Washington, on the other it would be erroneous thinking to it as a monolithic group. To many analysts, Obama’s move cannot have happened without an assessment on the real positions on the matter within and beyond the Democratic Party, suggesting that President Obama has considerable support in Congress. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America programme at the Wilson Center, says that there are many Republicans who are not resisting this or are neutral. In addition, it was highlighted the fact that the plane that brought Alan Gross back to the US had three members of Congress on board, including Republican Jeff Flake, from Arizona.
But if these were the reactions, mostly expected and understandable, is the the speculation on what it led to this historic rapprochement, what reasons and political calculation is behind the two presidents’ agreement.
US and Cuba Isolation is the Key to the Change
When In December 2013, at Nelson Mandela’s funerals, US President Barack Obama and Raul Castro shake hands in the first such public gesture since 1959, many analysts saw that as something more than a simply diplomatic good etiquette. During the following months, speculation on talks, pressure on embargo lifting in the US and EU media and the question surrounding Alan Gross’ deteriorating health have contributed to further the claims that something was going on between Cuba and US.
The reasons behind the agreement cannot be explained under a simplistic Cold War historic paradigm, instead there are political, economical, strategic and propagandist reasons more suitable to sustain the argument.
For both Cuba and US, the issue of prisoners started to assume a central focus in the dialogue: Alan Gross and his possible death while in detention and the unpopular arrest of the Cuban five where two major embarrassment for both presidents. The deteriorating health of Alan Gross has been behind the rapid overture as his death in a Cuban jail would have been an almost insurmountable obstacle for any possible negotiation. On the other side, this was also the opportunity for Cuba to close the issue surrounding the Cuban five and obtain the release. In few words, both countries had more to lose than to gain in leaving unchanged their positions.
Nevertheless, if this is true that the hostages exchange was the first point of contact and the first reason of starting negotiations, what made these talks evolve into a diplomatic breakthrough is something else.
US: A necessary deal, a potential Trojan horse
President Obama on his TV speech said the “rigid and outdated policy” of isolating Cuba had clearly failed and that it was time for a new approach. He defended the US policy as justified at the time but counterproductive on the long term, failing to achieve the supposed target. The reasoning under a Cold War paradigm, that Cuban communism could infect US or spill to other countries in not believable anymore and died 24 years ago. Recent political development in Latin America have nothing to do with Cuba or its revolution, the “turn to left”, more or less radical, has been obtained through the legal democratic electoral process and not with an armed revolution. Even considering the Zapatista’s Chiapas, the only real recent uprising under a guerrilla strategy, its results created more uneasiness in the Mexican government rather than in the US.
US and Obama’s administration had other reasons for this change: political (Latin America rapprochement, worldview of US role, electoral strategy), economic (review on embargo’s effects, growing competition), strategic (set a foot back in Latin America, counterbalance of powers, change of regime policy).
Obama’s administration had to revert its policy on Latin America that became synonym of disinterest and distrust. The turn to the left of several countries, the open opposition of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, the ambiguities of the Plan Colombia, their silence on the Falklands/Malvinas have further isolated and weakened the US. By reaching an agreement on Cuba, the US can start not only a dialogue with Raul Castro but also with the leftist governments of the subcontinent, change its image from a country opposed to independent political will to a country now ready to sat at a table and negotiate at the same level.
The Cuba’s agreement is also a necessary condition to change on the world scenario what is perceived as a “double standard” or hypocrite figure: promoting democracy where is convenient and blocking it where US interests are at stake. Including Cuba on the states sponsoring terror while keeping an eye shut on the repression in Egypt post Mubarak, appeasing the brutal military intervention, is a major embarrassment for example. The US have no problem in discussing with China and have normal relations, although their poor score on human rights, or recently the re-approaching with Iran in anti ISIS efforts just show how unbalanced and discredited is their policy: hailed in the Western allied government, despised by all the developing countries.
Finally, there is a purely internal political dimension. While Obama will not stand for the next presidential election, and seen the recent humiliating defeat in the Congress dominated by Republicans, the Democrats will have to find a good strategy to recover. CIA scandals, accuses of racism within police forces are used by Republicans to distance the minority groups from their usual electoral recipient. This deal, if on a side may anger Florida’s Cuban community, on the other it is also true that the Latino community as a whole welcome the move and may have effects on electoral polls.
Considering President Obama own strategy, he has been accused from all fronts in this second term: Republicans attack him for being too soft against Russia, Syria, Iran and North Korea, many Americans for being unable to sort arms controls, speed up reforms, control of terrorism and lately racism on police forces. This deal inevitably put a new light on his administration, as being the first American president to actually do something real for addressing this remnant of Cold War history. He may not be able to lift the embargo straight away but by opening the debate inevitably put the responsibility of the failure on the opposition and on the Cuban Government. If successful, he will make history and the Democrats will surely benefit.
On the economic sphere, the approach is to review in the long term the relations with Cuba aiming at end of the embargo. Its continuation is not only a heresy for trade market and capitalistic system on which the US is found, but it is also a loss of investments in an island that could offer the US incredible revenues. The risk of isolating itself is to give to competitors an advantage that will be impossible to recover when the embargo will be lifted. In addition, while the US cannot trade, others are already doing it or plan to do, with the risk also to have at the doorstep powers that are certainly not US friendly such China and worst of all Russia. Dialogue and embargo lifting will also undermine the role of regional powers like Venezuela that is the major partner and economic supporter of Cuba.
This inevitably opens the strategic scenario. The US 21st century policy is inevitably looking at the Pacific to contain the rising of China’s military might, but in the immediate Russia is the major obstacle and Cuba could be seen as dangerously needed by Moscow to thwart US interests. The strategy could be this time to pull Cuba on US side by reaching a deal and avoid pushing it towards Russia. By setting a friendlier relation with Cuba and assuring a sort of barrier against possible enemies, will allow Washington to reset its Latin American relations and damage the radical block represented by Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. This is the reason why Cubans and all other traditional US antagonists while welcoming deal, on the other are also conscious that the “change of regime policy” may be hidden somewhere. The Cuban regime therefore will surely continue to keep an eye on the communication agreement to avoid that this will be a Trojan horse to fuelling unrest.
Cuba: an unexpected diplomatic window to keep open with prudence
President Raul Castro gave his speech at the same time as President Obama announcing to Cubans this historic deal. He delivered his speech in a sober manner, with none of the triumphalist notes one could have expected on the day when a US president announced a major shift in relations with the “Communist-monster”. He mentioned his brother Fidel Castro a number of times, implying not only that the talks had been given the approval of the leader but also as confirmation that the Lider Maximo has been part of it indirectly.
However, Cuba like the US is also at a crossroad. Politically Cuba has to break the isolation and any US pretext for further sanctions or worst a change of regime. The recent changes in the Latin American political scenario have strengthened Cuba’s position, with all countries more or less in favour for an end of the embargo. Politically, as said the hostages issue has surely helped Cuba in negotiating with the US, but as per Obama political calculation in Havana is not a coincidence. Castro knows perfectly that a probable next republican government will not only block any Cuban effort to rediscuss the embargo but also its hostility can even mean a direct attempt for a change of regime. The time is also right for Raul Castro to change his image from being simply Fidel’s brother and achieve a status of his own, a real president, that exact like Obama has for many been subject of critics.
Exactly as per the US, in reality many of the reasons that may explain the willingness of Cuba to discuss are also strategic. Venezuela, due to falling oil prices is in economic decline, its support is not as strong as it used to be and without this source the already fragile Cuban economy will surely reach the bottom. In addition, Venezuela itself is subject of US sanctions and desire for a change of regime, which Cuba consider to be only a matter of time before the US will turn to Cuba again. Nevertheless, the paradox is that exactly the US double standard policy combined to the counterproductive stance with Russia has in reality opened a diplomatic space for Cuba to move. Russia is an immediate and present danger for US policy in the world, and Cuba may be seen as an attractive tool in Moscow for the tit-for-tat Cold War policy style: if the US are playing near the Russian border, so can do Russia with Venezuela and Cuba. But Cuba is probably also playing its cards in avoiding to get embroiled into the renewed US-Russia competition, and instead using this as an opportunity to obtain the maximum from both. A sort of neutrality which will be very welcome in Washington. Strategically speaking, on the embargo matter, the US are isolated in keeping a non sense blockade generating suffering on people, while from UN to EU, from Latin America to Pope Francis the calls are increasing for the end of this historical failure.
The US-Cuban deal is a start of a long road to close 50 years of distrust, hatred and isolation. While the short term goal is for both to dialogue and reopen a communication channel, on the long term is the embargo issue that may be the real challenge. No negotiation will be successful without addressing the embargo lifting and promoting a free Cuban trade, but on the other both countries are required to make further steps by abandoning the Cold War mindset and not using this renewed opportunity to unbalance the adversary. Unfortunately, recent political developments give less hope that powers will act sensibly or a far from echoes of world dominance and control. The embargo could be difficult to end and may be thicker than the Berlin Wall, but keeping it alive will make this world less safe and a dangerous weapon to revert to a division that was thought to have been relegated to history books a quarter of a century ago.