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U.S-Cuba: A New Era For Progression

 

For nearly half a century, the small island nation of Cuba was known by the United States and other Western powers as the infamous “Red Menace”, a pejorative reference that likened the country and its administration to a Soviet satellite state nestled only a mere ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Following the coup d’état that led to the fall of the American backed Fulgencio Batista, communist forces under the leadership of Fidel Castro established a totalitarian regime governed by stringent Marxist principles mirroring that of the Soviet Union. Since then, relations across the Florida Straits have at times reached extreme low points that have not only tested the will of American diplomacy, but have even pushed the entire world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. Characterized by nearly 56 years of Cold War rivalry that has included devastating trade embargoes, suspended diplomatic negotiations, and sheer ideological division, it would appear that diplomatic tension between the United States and Cuba will finally begin to thaw. In January of this year, President Obama announced his intentions to restore working diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, stating that despite inevitable disagreements that “we can agree that we can continue forward discussions that advance our mutual interest.” Despite considerable skepticism from both ends of the political spectrum, the President’s decision to re-open diplomatic relations with the Cuban government offers considerable potential to enhance economic, social, and political ties between the two nations and perhaps even begin to dispel vestiges of the Cold War era regime.

On January 24 2015, the United States sent its first congressional delegation, consisting of six appointed Democrats by the President, to meet with Cuban officials in Havana. In a preliminary statement, spokesman Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) stated that the delegation would seek “clarity from Cuba on what they envision normalization of relations to look like, and, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo’”.[1] After preliminary discussions took place regarding easing trade restrictions and improving migration protocol, President Obama traveled to Panama on April 11, 2015 to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro to continue negotiations regarding the normalization of international correspondence. The diplomatic breakthrough followed a U.S.-Cuban agreement to exchange prisoners—three American detained members of the Cuban Five in return for the release of U.S. intelligence operative, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo—and revealed for the first time in over five decades that actual productive negotiations could take place between the Cold War foes.[2] Since then, at the President’s urging, the United States has slowly begun chiseling away at the cumbersome sanctions that have crippled Cuba’s economy and businesses. Such measures include allowing American travelers to use U.S. credit cards, permitting private American insurers to provide health or other types of insurance to Cuban residents, authorized bank transactions, and perhaps most importantly, American private investment in some of Cuba’s small businesses. Indeed, the United States has made a crucially significant diplomatic step in the right direction that could stimulate Cuba’s economic growth and encourage an abandonment of the repressive communist institutions that have isolated the nation for decades. However, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, lack of congressional support for the movement could seriously impede normalization efforts as staunch figures on both ends of the political spectrum make well known their discontent and skepticism. Cuban-American representatives such as Marco Rubio (R-TX), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and Albio Sires (D-NJ) have “denounced the détente, arguing it would do little to improve human rights on the island.”[3] However, while serious concerns such as Cuba’s human rights track record certainly merit some degree of caution and hesitation, gradual economic integration and inclusivity projects a litany of benefits that in the long term outweigh the alleged harms.

According to policy analyst Julia Sweig, Cuba currently faces “serious obstacles in its quest for economic vitality” due to a severe exclusion from bustling world markets. While Cuba has made some strides toward economic expansion through the exports of sugar (its principle trade commodity), the small island nation still largely exists as an underdeveloped nation that is nearly entirely reliant on the service sector that makes up 75 percent of its total GDP.[4] With scarce capital and a dwindling working force, the plight of the Cuban people lies upon ever growing austerity and economic inequality that has stagnated growth. Normalization of relations and economic cooperation with the United States offers real prospects of assuaging “the indiscriminate hardships [the embargoes] have placed upon the Cuban people.”[5] According to Human Rights Watch, costly trade bans and diplomatic isolation has only perpetuated a cycle of poverty in Cuba and has effectively alienated Western governments from intervening in systemic human rights abuses. The Organization of American States goes further to note that economic reforms will most certainly lead to more comprehensive political reforms down the line.[6] The logic is simple: influx of foreign capital and investment bolsters industry, stimulates business, and demands government reform and cooperation in order to sustain national growth. Consider the case of Vietnam, another notorious communist power that shared similarly tenuous relations with the United States during the Cold War era. When President Clinton rescinded the trade embargo in February of 1994, Vietnamese economic growth skyrocketed while exports increased by nearly 62 percent—totaling approximately $1.4 billion in exports.[7] Vietnam then became the 150th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), agreeing to observe a series of economic and production standards that aim to ensure higher degrees of inclusion and labor rights. In a similar vein, U.S. agreement to create more venues for trade and investment opens for American businesses an untapped market, particularly in the agricultural and telecommunications industries. Importantly, such ventures would supplement Raul Castro’s efforts to decentralize the agricultural industry, relax restrictions on small enterprises, open real estate markets, easing travel restrictions, and expanding a base of consumer goods and commodities. Beyond the evident opportunities for economic growth, normalization allows the United States and its partners to take a more active role in curtailing Cuban human rights abuses. According to Jose Vivanco at Time, “to promote human rights, judicial independence free elections, independent unions, and free expression in Cuba, the U.S. government must understand that a multilateral approach is necessary.”[8] In other words, involving key world democracies in Cuban diplomacy offers far more probable odds of Cuban officials recognizing fundamental human rights as opposed to the archaic method of total and complete isolation—economically, politically, and politically.

Indeed, Cuba’s growth is by no means anticipated to be an overnight shift. Valid concerns raised by critics on Capitol Hill point out Cuba’s notorious practice of political repression and state censorship. The regime controls all media outlets and vigorously works to limit the influx of foreign information. Other issues, including indefinite detention, political corruption, and arbitrary judicial protocol all merit caution and skepticism, but do not mandate the status quo. Indeed, history indicates that the myopic and exclusionary politics of the Cold War only serve to polarize nations even more and facilitate long term harms. Instead, productive and progressive diplomacy between nations—such as in the historical cases of China, Russia, and Vietnam—prove to benefit both parties involved and encourage change in the interest of human rights, slow as those changes might seem. In a similar vein, international and domestic opinion advocate in favor restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Recent polls conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 63 percent of Americans supported the reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Havana.[9] An additional poll by Florida International University also indicates that “a majority of Cuban Americans also support normalizing ties”, with a whopping 68 percent.[10] Similarly, the United Nations General Assembly in a joint coalition of 188 members voted for a resolution to condemn the U.S. embargo and call for its prompt end. Indeed, the tides of public opinion on multiple levels warrant some degree of change in the near future. While congressional support for the movement is expected to be a chief impediment of any comprehensive action, political leaders in Congress must look to long term goals as opposed to policies that have proved to only perpetuate ongoing instability and discontent in the Caribbean.

In short, the days of the Cold War are fading more and more into the past as global markets and political entities continue to engage with one another on a variety of levels. As such, vestiges of the old world view—characterized by rivalry, exclusion, bickering—notably in the case of Cuba, must end in order to facilitate future growth and social progress. Indeed, the United States must take the lead in such sequence of affairs and must also do so with caution and deliberation. President Obama and his diplomatic advisors have taken the United States in the right direction by pursuing a policy of renewed openness and engagement with the Cuban government. Both nations stand to yield huge gains should they decide to actively cooperate and see to the economic and political change necessary to facilitate growth and social progress.

           

Sources:            

[1] Baker, Peter. “U.S. to Restore Full Relations With Cuba, Erasing a Last Trace of Cold War Hostility.” The New York Times. December 17, 2014. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[2] Renwick, Danielle. “US-Cuba Relations.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[3] Ibid

[4] Sweig, Julia. “Cuba After Communism.” Council on Foreign Relations. July 1, 2013. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[5] “US/Cuba: Obama’s New Approach to Cuba.” US/Cuba: Obama’s New Approach to Cuba. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[6] Ibid

[7] Glass, Andrew. “Clinton Ends Vietnam Trade Embargo on Feb. 3, 1994.” – Andrew Glass. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[8] Vivanco, Jose. “Lifting the Embargo Means Cuba Can No Longer Play Victim.” Time. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[9] Renwick, Danielle. “US-Cuba Relations.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed May 14, 2015.

[10] “Majority of Cuban Americans Say Embargo Has Not Worked.” News at FIU Florida International University. Accessed May 14, 2015.

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