It was 1991 when, for many, history ended. As every corner of the globe gave in to the magnanimous pull of a triumphant United States, the era of adversarial international politics and tit-for-tat conflict seemed to come to an abrupt end. The world seemed safer and any burgeoning reminders of the previous forty years slipped away as the world appeared united behind a mishmash of ideologies, all of which pointed to ‘growth through connection’.
This brave new world left few behind, but frozen in history was a country just three-hundred miles from Miami. In a meticulous calculation of cost-benefits, Cuba – still led by its communist architect, Fidel Castro – was ruled not worth the political wrangling. Abandoned by rhetoric of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’, Cuba was left in the Cold War, unable to join the 21st Century; a stagnant reminder of another era.
America’s internal and external sadism towards Cuba has persisted in earnest for the past twenty years. America has continued its embargo, which continues to cripple the average Cuban, and actively discouraged various regions from engaging with the island nation. Only last month were we reminded of America’s solitude on the issue, with every nation against or abstaining in a United Nation’s vote on the economic blockade, bar two: the US and Israel.
President Obama’s ‘legacy’ decision to normalise relations with the country therefore marks a turning point for both nations. Defying a significant Cuban-American opposition (particularly important in swing-state, Florida), Obama has recognised two things: firstly, that almost zero of the USA’s policies towards Cuba actually work and secondly, that their Cuba policy was a noticeable stain on America’s foreign policy.
Like most big decisions, the ‘normalisation’ of relations brings into question a number of important dynamics. Where does this leave Cuba’s Latin American disciples, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador? Will Obama be able to convince Congress to drop the embargo? Are Cuba’s anti-imperialist, anti-reform stalwarts weaker than they once were?
However one interesting dynamic, which has been largely ignored, is also worth exploring.
Russia, who just yesterday was hit with a new wave of US-backed sanctions following the rouble’s collapse, has been paying close attention to Cuba in recent months. By cancelling 90% of Cuba’s Cold War debt and quietly reopening a Soviet-era ‘spy’ base on the island earlier this year, Russia has made a relatively small, yet symbolic, step towards the island.
This might help answer the ‘why now?’ question which has been asked myriads times in the past forty-eight hours.
The answer might be simple: the game has changed. America’s relationship with Cuba was fit for a different era where ‘communism’ mattered. It doesn’t anymore, and whilst Cuba has become an increasingly open playing field for anyone bar America, the US clung onto a principle which no longer matters. Losing out to an increasingly aggressive Russia in whatever part of the world due to a reluctance to embrace change is a foolish policy.
In a new era, new friends are needed. Iran, another formidable enemy of the West, could tip the balance in the fight against ISIS. Vietnam and Burma, formerly staunch USA opponents, are increasingly cooling their frosty perceptions of America. Cuba is another such actor who could help solidify America’s acceptance of these new challenges.
We must be careful when we utter the words ‘Second Cold War’, but it is clear that 2014 has been a marked shift in the global politics. If 1991 was the end of history, this year might be its dramatic re-emergence. Embracing Cuba is just one sign that America is beginning to recognise this.