On December 16, something quite extraordinary happened. President Obama and President Castro spoke on the phone for nearly an hour. Beyond a handshake in South Africa it was their first known encounter. The following day, after more than a year of exchanges and negotiations involving a wide range of figures including the Pope and other world leaders, a carefully choreographed series of events designed to build confidence took place.
It began with a prisoner exchange, statements by both sides, and a six page US briefing note setting out a wide range of measures to improve gradually many aspects of US-Cuba relations. Later there was a less noticed statement from the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, confirming that a high level team would visit Havana in January led by the Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson. He also said that he would visit.
In their subsequent public statements the US and Cuban Presidents indicated that they hoped for a more normal future relationship between their two nations; with both saying in their own ways that they were willing to discuss and solve their differences without renouncing their principles.
The measures announced, for which the US President does not need the approval of Congress, involve the full restoration of diplomatic relations by both sides with full embassies formalising exchanges on international issues, and matters of mutual concern such as counter narcotics co-operation, environmental protection, aviation and postal services.
The US President also made clear that more US citizens will be able to travel to Cuba within existing categories. While this decision does not free US travel to Cuba it should mean that it will become easier for many more US citizens to obtain approval.
Further, trilateral talks are to be initiated involving the US, Mexico and Cuba on the delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mexico, an area where significant oil reserves are likely to be found; US institutions will be permitted to open correspondent accounts at Cuban financial institutions; and US credit and debit cards will be permitted for use by travellers to Cuba. Other measures include authorising an expansion in the export of US goods and services, allowing US companies to improve infrastructure linking the US and Cuba for commercial telecommunications and internet services, and foreign vessels will be able to enter the United States “after engaging in certain humanitarian trade with Cuba.”
But of all the decisions the President announced, the single most important for the US, Cuba and other nations, including those in the Caribbean, is his decision to authorise Secretary of State Kerry to review, based on the facts, Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The increasingly tough interpretation of this regulation by the US Treasury, despite Cuba for instance facilitating the Colombian peace process, has severely constrained all third country trade, as many international banks have withdrawn their support in order not to face huge fines.
What happens next in practical terms may be slow and uncertain, however it is clear that President Obama has initiated a process that he thinks will be sustainable beyond any Democrat administration.
In his statement, Secretary of State Kerry came close to saying that the US sees parallels between the normalisation of relations with Cuba and its experience with Vietnam. “As we did with Vietnam, changing our relationship with Cuba will require an investment of time, energy and resources”, Mr Kerry said.
There, small but incremental changes in US regulations led quite rapidly to US business engaging in such a manner that the pressure on Congress for the full normalisation of trade relations became unstoppable. In other words it may be that President Obama calculates, in the case of Cuba, that the weight of US corporate interest and freer travel may force an unstoppable economic and social opening that a Republican dominated House and Senate will not then wish to turn back.
That said, President Castro and President Obama both noted that the agreement to normalise relations would be challenging and take time. Moreover it does not, as President Castro observed, go to the heart of the matter. “The economic, commercial, and financial blockade [embargo] which causes enormous human and economic damage to our country must cease,” he said.
Despite this, the change is remarkable, not least because the US has accepted that there is a communist nation just ninety miles from its shores.
This point and the strength of Cuba nationalism is likely to continue to raise questions as to how far and how fast either side is prepared to, or is able to move. While a more normal relationship based on mutual respect and the trust will most likely emerge from regular diplomatic and other exchanges, fundamental differences exist. Cuba is looking for an economic opening and being left alone, while the US continues to seek a change in Cuban society and its governance. Put another way, younger Cubans may want more materially but they are still Cuban patriots, highly educated and find much of the type of commentary common in the US about their country or what they wish for, insulting.
There are many reasons why Cuba and the US decided to move now. In US political terms the timing was politically propitious. The US President cannot run for office again and has time to see the process develop. The US mid-term elections are over; there will be a new more pragmatic Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; the Cuban American community are no longer monolithic and most want change; and key figures in the community are considering returning as investors. In Washington it is believed that the island will need to undergo greater orientation towards the market if the economy is to grow, and large US corporations want a part of this. There were probably strategic considerations in play.
In Cuba the view was that when Raul Castro steps down in 2018, a younger, more technocratic but less experienced generation of leaders will take control. A change in US-Cuba relations now would mean that up to that point the US and others will have the absolute certainty to know that what is agreed can be delivered. This is not to say that the socialist leadership that follows will not continue the process, but the sense was that more could be achieved while the country’s respected revolutionary leadership remains in control. Moreover, Cuba recognised that it needed an opening to the US, to ensure new and less constrained sources of investment to stimulate growth.
For both nations there were also hemispheric considerations. Cuba had won the global diplomatic battle and Washington was finding itself ever more isolated in the Americas. Normalisation means that both Presidents can go to the Summit of the Americas in April to discuss issues.
Changing the US-Cuba relationship will not be a an easy or quick process but if detente works it will change forever the future political, economic and social trajectory of the countries of the Caribbean Basin and Cuba’s role in it.
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