Cracking Cuba Open: The New Frontier of US-Cuban Relations

Sapphire waves cascade against the white, sandy shores as the sun illuminates towering palm trees. Beach-goers of a wide variety of tones and colors bask in the radiance while others frolic amongst the tides, enjoying their leisure time at one of many great sites nature has to offer their island nation. There is no doubt Cuba is full of beautiful scenery and home to a diverse range of inhabitants. But soaking in the delightful vistas, it is easy to forget that the nation has been shunned for decades by the United States and rest of its allies. During the Cold War– a time when the world hastily split into opposing capitalist and communist camps under the wing of the United States or Soviet Union– the United States imposed an embargo banning trade and travel to Cuba that still exists today. The successful Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro from 1953 to 1959, created a new communist and pro-Soviet regime that allowed the Soviet Union to install missiles on the island. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 nearly caused an all-out war between the two superpowers, an altercation that has loomed over relations between the two nations ever since. Indeed, the US embargo against Cuba imposed in 1960 remained after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Now in the wake of a recent renewal of diplomatic ties between the two countries US President Barack Obama has revealed his intent to improve the relations between the two nations and has even expressed hope of lifting the embargo against Cuba, a move that some speculate will increase the likelihood of political reform within Cuba and culminate in better US-Latin American relations overall in the face of growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region.

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US Secretary of State, John Kerry, stands for the Cuban National Anthem on August 14, 2015 at the US embassy in Havana which was newly reopened after decades on July 20, 2015. “Secretary Kerry Stands for the Cuban National Anthem at the Newly Re-Opened U.S. Embassy Havana” by U.S Department of State. 17 U.S.C. § 101 and § 105, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

On December 17, 2014, the world was shocked to hear that secret negotiations between the United States and Cuba brokered by the Vatican had resulted in the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two nations after five decades of mutual isolation. This renewal of relations brought about a prisoner exchange of detained spies from both sides as well as the release of Alan P. Gross, an American government contractor, who had been imprisoned by Cuba for the past five years. Furthermore, President Obama announced plans to open a US embassy in Havana, ease travel restrictions, and send US Secretary of State John Kerry as well as several other high-ranking officials to Cuba to reconsider its status as a state sponsor of terrorism. Lastly, President Obama indicated that he wished to lift the embargo, though this is largely contingent on US Congress initiative.

Obama has received some backlash for the move, mostly from the Republican Party, which holds the majority of congressional seats. Several Republicans assert that this move is an appeasement of the current Cuban authoritarian regime headed by Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s brother. Like his famous brother’s, Raul Castro’s regime has been accused of human rights violations. Human Rights Watch actually classifies Cuba as one of Latin America’s most politically repressive nations as political dissidents and protesters are often arrested and are systematically shut down and marginalized in society. Free press is virtually non-existent, and media outlets are stringently censored. These grim realities have caused many Republicans and other opponents to view re-normalizing ties with Cuba as implicitly legitimizing such activities. Proponents of the new developments, however, see things quite differently. Many argue that normalizing relations with Cuba and lifting the embargo could actually be instrumental in facilitating reform within Cuba. Five decades of isolation have not prompted any changes in the politics of the island nation, which continues to be dominated by the Communist Party of Cuba. The hope is that the economic liberalization fostered by the recent détente will lead to transparency, creating domestic institutions conducive to political reform. President Obama noted that the fact that the Cuban government is discussing methods of economic reorganization to incorporate possible foreign investment is a testament to Cuba’s resolve and potential for change. Over half a century of imposed confinement could not bring the reform that was hoped but these new developments seem likely to initiate a new pulse of organization and structure that hopefully will pave the way for a free Cuba.

Warmer relations between the United States and Cuba may also have larger implications for US foreign relations in the region. Recently, China has taken major strides in Latin America forging strong economic relations with several countries. China helped fund Argentina’s nuclear power plant, launched Bolivia’s first satellite, and is even rumored to be helping Venezuela start its own drone program. Most notably, China announced that it will work with Nicaragua in constructing a canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This ambitious $US50billion project will dwarf the Panama Canal in size and scope and will be able to cater to larger freighters that previously could not cross. Furthermore, China has become the top trade partner of Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Venezuela, indicating the how pervasive China’s clout and reach in this region has become. Russia has made similar dives into Latin America. In July 2014, Russian President Putin went on a six-day tour of the region, meeting with several leaders and making various agreements. President Putin announced that 90 percent of all unpaid Cuban debt to Russia since Soviet times would be pardoned while the other 10 percent would be reinvested into Cuban infrastructure. Multiple deals regarding aviation, weapons, and technical cooperation were also made with Brazil and Argentina. To top it all off, President Putin became the first Russian President to visit Nicaragua where he was met with a warm reception. Thus, it becomes extremely clear that China and Russia are making major gains in Latin America, a region some had previously dismissed as the United States’s backyard. Meanwhile, Latin America’s perception of the United States in light of the Cuba Question has persistently declined since the 1990’s, as consistent US exclusion of Cuba from hemispheric institutions such as the Organization of American States or the Summit of the Americas has put the United States and other Latin American Nations at odds. But the Obama Administration’s new stance on Cuba is likely to bring some change, evidenced by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson’s remark that U.S-Cuba normalization “removes an excuse for blaming the United States.” Therefore, this reconciliation may be a strategic step, advancing US influence into the vacuum that is quickly being occupied by China and Russia.

This historic shift in the US-Cuban relations will have a cascade of political and economic ramifications for the island nation that has been isolated by the Western world for so long. It may also have an impact on soured US-Latin American relations. In this interconnected world, China and Russia’s economic expansion is indicative of a struggle for dominance as national economies become globally integrated. This struggle is now expanding into Latin America, and by pursuing this new approach towards Cuba by normalizing ties and cracking the shell it had encapsulated the island nation in, the United States is finally making a recent effort to win over its hemispheric brethren.

About Author

Farhan Javed

Farhan Javed is a staff writer for the Harvard International Review. He contributes primarily to the Global Notebook.