The Mist Clears in the Island-State
Roughly 54 years after the United States cut diplomatic ties with Cuba and sent a CIA paramilitary group to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime, on December 17th, 2014, President Obama announced that the United States and Cuba would re-establish and normalize relations. This effort to end the hostility that has long plagued relations between the two countries is likely to have broad political, social, and economic effects on the United States and Cuba. The most poignant question, however, is whether will this normalization bring democracy or improved human rights to the Cuban people. US policy towards Cuba over the course of the last five decades was largely shaped by the events of the Cold War. When Fidel Castro came into power after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 he began to seize private land belonging to American companies and nationalize private American subsidiaries. Any products from the North he could not control, he would ruthlessly tax. In response, the Eisenhower administration imposed trade restrictions on everything but food and medical supplies going to Cuba. Castro then focused his international trade and investment on the Soviet Union, resulting in Eisenhower cutting diplomatic ties with Cuba on January 3rd, 1961. President Kennedy issued the permanent embargo on Cuba a little more than a year later on February 7, 1962. The embargo extended to nearly all American imports.
The embargo persisted throughout the end of the Cold War and even strengthened in 1992 and 1996, when the United States imposed the embargo on countries that trade with Cuba after the island-nation’s military shot down two US civilian planes. It thus came as a surprise when President Obama made his announcement after 18 months of secret talks with the help of Pope Francis. In regards to why the United States is restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, President Obama stated “we will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests.”
The plan for the restoration of diplomatic ties involves a variety of concessions by both the United States and Cuba. The United States will reopen its embassy in Cuba, ease travel, and business restrictions, and ease banking restrictions so Americans can use credit and debit cards overseas. Additionally, the US will release three Cubans who were convicted and imprisoned in the United States for espionage. The US will also increase the remittance rate so Cuban-Americans can send up to $2000 to their families overseas. The American government will allow small-scale imports of Cuban cigars and alcohol. Lastly, the US will review Cuba’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism and potentially remove them from the list.
In regard to the Cuban government’s responsibilities, the Cuban government will also reopen its embassy in Washington D.C. The Cuban government will also release Alan Gross, a US contractor who has been imprisoned for the last 5 years after being accused of attempting to undermine the Cuban government. Cuba will also release 53 political prisoners, allow their citizens increased access to the Internet, and allow members of the United Nations and Red Cross to enter its territory.
One of the main criticisms of President Obama’s decision to reestablish ties with Cuba is that the United States should not cooperate with a government that violates its own citizen’s human rights. Marco Rubio, Republican Senator and vocal critic of the decision stated that the policy is “a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans ..." In 2014, the Human Rights Watch reported that the Cuban government represses individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights. The report states that punishments for dissidents include “beatings, public acts of shaming, termination of employment, and threats of long-term imprisonment. Short-term arbitrary arrests have increased dramatically in recent years and routinely prevent human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others from gathering or moving about freely.” On the other hand, President Obama believes that the US will be able to exert greater influence in Cuba through bilateral interactions. By releasing political prisoners, one may argue that Cuba is making a show of good faith to improve its human rights record. Additionally increased access to uncensored Internet would put democratic pressure on the government from within.
Another persisting question is the Cuban embargo. The United States has pledged support to the Cuban people through the exports of goods in three areas: improving living conditions and supporting independent economic activity, strengthening civil society, and improving communications. That said, the American embargo on Cuba remains in effect. While President Obama has voiced his desire to end the embargo, Congress is the only body with the authority to do so. The Republican leadership has made it clear that they will not let President Obama completely eliminate the embargo. Ultimately, regardless of the results in congress, the decision to reestablish ties with Cuba is a monumental step towards eliminating the relics of the Cold War era that continue to affect modern foreign affairs and the human rights violations that oppress a nation of people.