Illustration by Alex Kostiw
The United States plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after decades of hostility, imposed sanctions, and embargoes, however the lengthy process of normalizing relations and passing bills to repeal the embargo will be a challenge for both governments as negotiations and compromises will need to be made in order to continue moving forward.
For the U.S., reestablishing an embassy in Havana will be a matter of receiving approval from Cuba who has rejected this proposal until they have officially been removed from the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and the U.S. agrees to end its support of Cuban politicians who oppose the current regime.
President Obama addressed the U.S. foreign policy in his speech on December 17 and stated that the failed policy towards Cuba is an “outdated approach” and has “failed to advance our interests.”
Plans for the Embassy entail working with the Cuban government to improve the conditions of Cuban civil society by focusing on human rights issues, promoting business initiatives, and expanding commerce and trade to open up the flow of information between the U.S. and Cuba as well as on a broader global scale, Obama noted. The plans also include reforming migration laws that concern Cubans and increasing travel between the two countries.
The U.S. enacted economic sanctions and a total trade embargo on Cuba after diplomatic relations were severed in January of 1961.
Secretary of State John Kerry stated that U.S. policy over the span of 50 years has “remained virtually frozen and done little to promote a prosperous, democratic, and stable Cuba.”
In 2009 the Cuban and American governments met to evaluate the 1994 and 1995 U.S. Cuba Migration Accords and “pledged to promote safe, legal, and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States,” stated the U.S. State Department last year. In 2011 these changes were reviewed again and further expanded.
Since 2009 policy shifts have also lifted restrictions on the remittances Cuban immigrants can send back to their families in Cuba and have lifted travel restrictions between the two countries in order to “change our relationships and improve the lives of the Cuban people,” as was stated on the U.S. State Department’s website.
During his November speech Obama reflected that the community of Cuban exiles in the United States and their younger generations have “made enormous contributions to our country — in politics and business, culture, and sports,” which has created a “unique relationship, at once family and foe.”
In December last year the White House Office of the Press Secretary published a fact sheet online laying out each goal of the new policy which frequently reiterates that the new relationship is intended to “further engage and empower the Cuban people,” emphasizing goals that target general living conditions which the U.S. government says it hopes will improve over time as the U.S. focuses on issues such as migration, human and drug trafficking, and “advancing shared interested,” Obama noted, like health, counterterrorism, environmental protection, and disaster response.
Other objectives that promote increased trade between the countries aim to develop commercial entrepreneurship in Cuba’s private sector to support a wider distribution of technology to greatly extend the Cuban individual’s access to information, which is a different approach to improving civil society than say overthrowing a regime, which the Office of the Press Secretary addressed commenting, “We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.” Under the new foreign policy it will also be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba.
Enhanced telecommunication connections and business affairs between the two countries will provide new opportunities to further engage relations and the Cuban people. This “increased commerce is good for Americans and for Cubans,” Obama stated, adding that “nobody represents America’s values better than the American people, and I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.”
Amendments to the Department of the Treasury and Commerce regulations will be implemented to generate positive changes and democratic reforms in Cuba that will support “human rights by empowering civil society and a person’s right to speak freely, peacefully assemble and associate, and by supporting the ability of people to freely determine their future,” which will ultimately allow the Cuban people to drive economic and political reforms,” the Office of the Press Secretary stated.
The new policy hopes to open younger generations to a more “interconnected world,” Obama specified, and is currently “taking steps to place the interests of the people of both countries at the heart of our policy.”
Rather than maintaining a half-century-old policy born out Cold War politics, the new foreign policy will continue to focus on “improving the Cuban Government’s respect for human rights and advocating for democratic reforms within Cuba,” Kerry stated.
Polls taken by the Florida International University in Miami in summer of 2014 revealed that 68 percent of the Cuban American population in Miami was in favor of restoring diplomatic ties, and 71 percent agreed that the U.S. embargo of Cuba has not worked at all or has not worked very well.
Moving forward, Kerry stated “promoting freedom of speech and entrepreneurship and an active civil society will only strengthen Cuban society and help to reintegrate Cuba into the international community.”
These ambitious humanitarian goals were met with a typical defiance from republicans in Congress and have lead to arguments over the possible benefits and detriments of new economic relations to support the rights of the individual citizen in Cuba. Allowing them to enjoy the same consumer rights as Americans could potentially provide the Cuban government new ways of imposing even stricter policies to maintain its political power.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida harshly criticized the changes, claiming that “these changes will do nothing to change their behavior towards the Cuban people,” and ultimately the regime “will be just as repressive a year from now as it is today.”
Rubio also believes “This whole new policy is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people,” and will eventually provide the Cuban government “the opportunity to manipulate these changes to stay in power.”
Even though Obama has already taken strides to lift trade and travel barriers, the two separate bills Republican and Democratic senators have introduced will need to be approved in order to end the embargo, but there are still pockets of strong resistance from oppositional republicans.
Obama addressed the criticism stating, “I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy,” but regardless, the relationships must continue to move forward. There will be obstacles and future disagreements, as there are with any foreign relationships, but after 50 years of isolation and failed foreign policy, Obama reiterated, “It’s time for a new approach.”