The United States and Cuba have reached an unprecedented point in their bilateral relations when President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands at the recent Summit of the Americas. This meeting shows light at the end of the tunnel for over a half century of nearly no contact and a crippling trade embargo that has severely damaged Cuba’s economy. The meeting between the presidents was a momentous occasion, sparking what many on both sides hope will be the beginning of a new diplomatic relationship. Customarily, the next step would be to open embassies in the respective capitals. While there are still many challenges blocking better relations, it is important to remember that conditions are now ripe for normalized ties between the communist island and its colossal neighbor to the north. The restoration of ties must be a gradual occurrence and both sides have to be patient and keep their expectations in check.
From Cuba’s view, there are many impediments blocking their acceptance of restoring relations. The biggest impediment that is dividing the United States and Cuba is the trade embargo that during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. While President Obama believes the embargo should be removed, the sticking point is that it can only be done so by Congress. There are a significant number of lawmakers in the United States who remain strongly opposed to lifting the embargo. Another obstacle is Cuba’s presence on a U.S. Department of State’s sponsors of terrorism list. Cuba was removed from this list, removing one significant impediment.
Cuba is largely driven by economic need in its efforts to revive ties with the U.S., but is skeptical of American intentions. President Castro has stated emphatically that Cuba will not transition to capitalism: “We shall continue working to update the Cuban economic model with the purpose of improving our socialism.” Above all, Cuba is a bit distrusting of the United States’ motives as it fears the Obama administration is seeking regime change, since the United States did fund covert CIA missions throughout the Cold War in an effort to depose the Castro regime.
President Obama has acknowledged some of the unfortunate U.S. policies from the Cold War, including some of the regime change attempts. This acknowledgement was needed to initiate improving relations. Mr. Obama is the first president within recent history to feel that normalized ties with Cuba are in the best interest of the United States and that the trade embargo is antiquated and counterproductive. While Mr. Obama has shown a willingness to give Cuba a second chance, he is not naïve in the fact that many differences of opinion exist.
The central concern that the United States has is the “lack of political freedoms” in Cuba. The Cuban government still controls much of the economy through its socialist policies. Many in Washington are now wondering if the United States can “ask Cuba to respect the political opposition” and civil society groups? The truth is, the United States can request anything it wants from Cuba; it may delay or even prevent bettering ties and it is very possible that Cuba will not comply with any of the United States’ main concerns.
While President Obama is hopeful that restored ties will spark political and human rights reforms and has explicitly stated that he is not seeking a regime change, such an overhaul is not going to happen without some prodding from the U.S. It is an evitable fact that the United States will have to bring up Cuba’s domestic politics at some point.
Another complicating factor is Cuba’s close relationship with the Maduro administration of Venezuela. Will Cuba’s close relationship and the United States’ antipathy for Venezuela complicate the restoring of ties? Cuba maintained a close alliance to Venezuela throughout the Cold War and after because of their similar ideological mentalities (Cuba is a communist country while Venezuela has stayed loyal to former President Hugo Chavez’s populist brand of socialism) and because Venezuela provides cheap oil to Cuba. Venezuela has long railed against what it calls American imperialism in Latin America, a complaint shared by Cuba.
Recently, the United States imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan government officials for human rights abuses and called Venezuela a threat to its national security. President Obama’s actions, and those of the previous presidents, have angered the leaders of Latin America. Dominican Republican President Danilo Medina Sanchez illustrated this point at the Summit of the Americas when he stated “The tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela make it difficult to create the climate of dialogue and depolarization of policies that is needed in our region” The hostility between the United States and Venezuela could prove to be a complicating factor in its reset of relations with Cuba and the U.S. must take special strides not to let this impact what could arguably be the crowning foreign policy achievement of the President’s Obama’s presidency.
The restoration of ties between the United States and Cuba will be a gradual process. The Cuban president acknowledged that patience would be critical, showing appropriate expectations. After his meeting with President Obama at the Summit of the Americas, he posited that “We [the U.S. and Cuba] are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient – very patient.”
President Obama has shown the same degree of pragmatism in his observation, “There will be a revolution in Cuba, no matter what we [the United States] do.” This rational observation exemplifies the fact that President Obama is prepared to be patient because he knows that Cuba will experience the kind of change the United States is seeking (whether it is through top-down change or change from the bottom-up at the demand of Cuban citizens and civil society groups as they are exposed more and more to the American way of life)
The extent of changes to the U.S.-Cuban relationship depends entirely on the Cuban government, and even if the United States and Cuba are unable to come to some agreement on the outstanding questions, some needed steps have already bene taken. Thus, both presidents must, and do, expect for changes to be gradual, but, most importantly, the restoration of ties between these two traditional adversaries will occur.