Barack Obama and the ‘Cuban Thaw.’
When an African-American is President, and the Pope is Latin American, Fidel Castro declared in the 1970s, then relations between Cuba and the USA will resume. Deeply critical of the treatment of African-Americans in the USA – of Southern state segregation laws and of poor living standards in Harlem, where he stayed during brief visits to the USA – Castro’s statement was less predictive than ironic.
Negotiations between the USA and Cuba to restore diplomatic relations began in Canada in 2013, instigated by Barack Obama and Fidel Castro’s successor, his brother Raul, with the support of Pope Francis. Then, in December 2014, Obama announced that the USA intended to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, and political embassies were opened in both countries.
So what has changed for America and Cuba? For Obama, the economic and diplomatic blockade against Cuba, introduced in the early 1960s, has outlived its purpose. On his visit to Cuba in March 2016 – the first by any American President in 88 years – Obama announced, ‘I come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War of the Americas…I am here to extend the hand of friendship to Cuba.’
Such statements are not inevitable. The end of the Cold War did not deter Bill Clinton in 1993 from reassuring the Cuban exile community in Miami that he had no intention of lifting the blockade; George W. Bush went further by categorising Cuba as a ‘terrorist state.’ Both Presidents justified their actions on the basis of Cuba’s human rights record, pointing to its one-party state and the number of political prisoners held on the island.
Historically the USA has tolerated some brutal regimes, including the murderously repressive Papa Doc in neighbouring Haiti, and Rafael Trujillo’s cult of personality in the Dominican Republic, leading critics of US policy to suggest that in reality, the extended Cold War against Cuba reflects presidential resentment at how the Castro brothers - helped considerably if not always by Russia – have survived politically since their revolutionary victory in 1959.
Like Clinton and Bush, Obama has called for a multi-party political system, the right to vote, and free and fair elections in Cuba. Yet on his visit to the island in 2016, he insisted that political progress must come from within. Forceful strategies never worked in Cuba; as Obama indicated, he was born in the year of Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion by US based Cuban exiles. Obama does not suggest overturning Castro’s rule, although his calls for democracy do imply that Cubans should be offered a choice of regime. With the Miami Cuban community in mind, Obama has also emphasised the cultural dislocation caused by the experience of exile, which may help to alleviate mistrust of his Cuban policies.
Given the forthcoming Presidential elections, it is incautious to assume a complete post-Cold War ‘Cuban Thaw.’ Obama cannot lift the blockade alone; this requires the consent of Congress. Yet he believes that by reinstating flights between Cuba and America, increasing Cuba’s access to the dollar and reopening embassies – measures that do not challenge the trade restrictions imposed by the blockade - a process of change has been introduced that will be difficult to reverse. While Obama’s diplomacy clearly reflects a new departure from presidential norms, for now, at least, Cuba’s future relationship with the USA remains uncertain.