They are separated by only the slender breadth of the Florida Straits, yet Cuba and the USA have not enjoyed good neighbourly ties since the Cuban revolution of 1959, which saw the country ally closely with America’s enemy, USSR.
But a momentous new development in international affairs, popularly dubbed the ‘Cuban Thaw’, could see the fraught relationship between the two countries improve dramatically.
A series of secret negotiations that lasted nearly two years, surprisingly mediated by Pope Francis, culminated in President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro publicly declaring their intention to ‘normalise’ the relationship between the two estranged countries in December 2014.
Nevertheless, the relationship retains deep fault lines that are yet to be resolved. In his speech Obama struck a critical note, mentioning “that decades of isolation had failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba”. It was clear that the US hoped lifting the freeze on Cuba is primarily because the country desires to play a more direct role in transforming Cuba according to its democratic standards. For his part, Castro remained equally wary about his country’s relationship with the US, stressing the ‘deep differences’ between both counties.
Contentious issues between the two countries are numerous. Foremost is the American embargo on Cuba, which began in 1960 and is yet to be absolutely removed, despite trade relations between the countries becoming increasingly open under Obama’s administration. Then there is the USA’s refusal to stop its anti-Castro propaganda and pushing for human rights.
A Cuban policy advisor has cautioned the US that “The government of the Republic of Cuba will only accept what it feels it can control. The initiatives proposed by President Obama are designed to tear at the social fabric of the Republic of Cuba.” On the other hand, Republican rivals and Democrat colleagues alike have accused Obama of being the ‘appeaser-in-chief’ who has taken far too soft a stand against the Cuban dictatorship.
Despite these enduring difficulties, the implications of the Cuban thaw for the average Cuban appear to be largely positive. The liberalisation of travel between both countries and the reopening of embassies in each other’s countries should greatly help the nascent tourism industry in Cuba while the increased export of commercial goods from the USA should benefit Cuba’s developing private sector. The USA is also keen on increasing telecom and internet infrastructure to improve freedom of expression and information.
On the other hand, some Americans (particularly from the state of Florida) worry about the impact that new immigration from Cuba will have on the USA. Officials from both countries will meet later this month to decide on immigration policy and this could prove to be another stumbling block.
But the Cuban thaw isn’t just about the US and Cuba. It is a major step for the USA to reposition itself in the region and has helped the country endear itself to a number of its formerly hostile Latin neighbours, including Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Thus, regardless of whether you see the Cuban thaw as a validation of an inhuman dictatorship, an opportunistic and imperialist power move by the US or an opportunity for the Americans to ‘help Cubans help themselves’, it remains one of the most exciting developments in US foreign policy. The future of this uneasy truce is still fraught with uncertainty, but what is certain is that it will play a crucial role in determining the political and economic dynamics of the Americas in the coming years.