The announcement in December 2014 of a restoration of normal relations between Cuba and the US shocked many, and thus far very little opposition has been registered. However, this inactivity should not shroud the challenges that lie ahead for both countries, says Peter Hakim of Inter-American Dialogue.

Peter Hakim

It was only eight months ago, on December 17, that Cuban president Raúl Castro and US president Barack Obama revealed – to almost everyone else’s surprise – that their governments, after more than a year of secret negotiations, had reached agreement to end half a century of hostility and restore normal relations. Since their December announcement, the US and Cuba have succeeded in restoring full diplomatic ties. For the first time since 1961, the Cuban flag flies over the country’s embassy in Washington and the American banner over the US embassy in Havana. There have been other critical steps toward rapprochement.

Although the US trade embargo still severely limits US-Cuban economic transactions, Mr Obama has raised the ceiling on family remittances to Cuba more than fourfold to some $500 a month, loosened restrictions on trade with and investment in Cuba, and substantially eased curbs on travel to the island. Tourism is still banned, but many professional groups – academics, journalists, artists, investors and athletes, for example – no longer need permits to travel to Cuba. Air transport to Cuba has been expanded, and the US has given the green light to a ferry service between Florida and Cuba (which Havana now has to approve). US banks are now allowed to do business with Cuban counterparts.  

Friends reunited?

At the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April, the presidents of the US and Cuba met for a substantive, hour-long conversation for the first time since 1956. In a formal speech to the gathering of hemispheric leaders, Mr Castro presented a detailed review of how the US government had violated Cuba’s sovereignty over the years and had sabotaged the country's economy. Later, however, he praised both the US president’s honesty and decision to break with the past. Mr Obama acknowledged the validity of some of Castro’s criticisms, and said that the US was now committed to pursuing a more positive approach towards the country and Latin America more generally.

The following month, the US president announced the removal of Cuba from the US list of terrorist sponsoring countries, clearing away one of the most formidable hurdles to improved relations.

The first phase of reconciliation has been successfully completed. Negotiations between US and Cuban officials were conducted professionally and demonstrated considerable good will on both sides. Although mistrust and suspicion still permeate the relationship, the US and Cuba have so far complied with their commitments to one another and have built up a degree of mutual respect in the process.

Little opposition

What has been especially noteworthy and surprising is how limited the opposition has been, in both Washington and Havana, to the reconciliation effort. Even key White House officials expected some considerable resistance within the US to the Cuba policy change. To be sure, the three Cuban-American senators, two of whom are Republican presidential candidates, assailed Mr Obama’s initiative and called for its reversal. But few other members of Congress joined them in active opposition.

What has been especially noteworthy and surprising is how limited the opposition has been, in both Washington and Havana, to the reconciliation effort. Even key White House officials expected some considerable resistance within the US – Peter Hakim

Mr Obama’s decision to drop Cuba from the list of terrorist supporting countries was also uncontested by Congress. Moreover, in Miami, once the centre of hardline resistance to any opening to Cuba, no serious public outcry or street protests occurred. Polls show that the once intensely anti-Castro Cuban-American community is today evenly divided on Cuba policy, while some two-thirds of all Americans (including nearly 60% of Republican voters) favour the White House’s new approach. Meanwhile in Cuba, despite some powerful opponents among dissidents and official circles, no visible challenges to the rapprochement have yet emerged.

Politically, the minimal opposition to the shift in US-Cuba relations so far suggests that the changes that have taken place in the past eight months are probably irreversible. Yes, the next US president, who is scheduled to take office in less than 18 months, will have the authority to undo the new Cuba policy. In practice, however, such a turnabout is unlikely. It would, first of all, be resisted by many Cuban-American families and many in the US business community, who are now clamouring for broader openings. Around the world, the US would be viewed as wavering and indecisive. Confidence in US commitments would decline, and US credibility on foreign policy would be diminished.  

Steeper challenges

But no matter how difficult it will be to reverse the progress to date, the path toward full normalisation is likely to become steeper and more challenging in the coming period. Mr Obama or his successor cannot, on their own, proceed with the most important next steps – the lifting of the US embargo and the return of Guantanamo to Cuban sovereignty. These measures will require congressional approval, which will depend, in part, on the results of the 2016 elections (for both Congress and the president).

Regardless of who the next president is and which party controls Congress, the Cuban government’s own advances toward economic and political opening will be critical considerations in US decisions regarding the embargo and Guantanamo. Respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles will remain priority objectives of US Cuba policy – and Washington will keep them at the centre of continuing US-Cuban negotiations. The US government, however, will have to exercise restraint. Heavy-handed demands, pressures and deadlines could backfire and reinforce Havana’s distrust of Washington and its considerable resistance to change.

The consequence of rapprochement will be mostly felt in Cuba. Neither the politics nor the mammoth economy of the US will be much affected by a new relationship with Cuba. For the US, the most important benefit is the potential for improved relations in Latin America and increasing prospects for greater co-operation in the region and perhaps globally. The US-Cuba rapprochement has been welcomed by every other government of the hemisphere – and was celebrated at the Summit in Panama. Regardless of their display of goodwill, most countries in Latin America will remain wary and guarded in their relations with the US – even as they pragmatically pursue strong economic bonds and cordial political and diplomatic ties. 

US-Latin American relations have been shaken and transformed in recent years by a variety of trends and issues. Regardless of their views of US policy, Latin American countries are far more independent from the US than ever before. They are more confident and assertive, and have expanded and diversified their links across the globe.

Cuba's benefits

For Cuba, a warmer relationship with the US could help to avert a humanitarian crisis in the short run, and over time offer a more hopeful future for its shaky economy. US ties can contribute importantly to a more robust and sustainable pattern of growth and productivity, and perhaps even help to bring a measure of prosperity to the country. Ending the embargo would give Cuba, after half a century of economic quarantine, access to the US’s immense markets and capital resources, from investments and expanded flows of remittances and tourists. A regularised economic relationship with the US would also make Cuba a more attractive place for foreign investors from many other countries – and open the way for loans from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.  

Even if US politics were to keep the embargo in place, many of its restrictions will likely erode in the coming period. Limits on remittance transfers will continue to recede in face of demands from Cuban-Americans seeking to assist relatives on the island. Curbs on US travel to the country will fade. Lobbying campaigns by the US business community should steadily, even if gradually, expand access to Cuban markets for US goods. As more US banks develop correspondent relations with counterparts in Cuba, controls on credit transactions may be loosened.

The biggest uncertainly, however, is whether the Cuban government will take advantage of the new relationship with the US – whether it will put in place policies needed to exploit the new opportunities. The future of the Cuban economy, and the prospects it can offer to its citizens, will mostly depend on Cuba’s success in pursuing a serious agenda of economic change.

On this score, recent history is not reassuring. The Cuban government’s excruciatingly slow implementation of promised reforms over the past eight years provides little evidence of the Cuban leadership's interest in reshaping the economy or yielding its centralised control over it. Indeed, it does not yet even claim to be interested.  

And despite a few small, timid steps toward political openings in recent years, there is little reason to be encouraged that Cuba is yet heading towards a more open, democratic society that is respectful of individual rights. Since the reconciliation process began, Mr Castro and other Cuban officials have repeatedly stated that, while Cuba's political and economic systems need to be adjusted and brought up to date, they will not be altered in any fundamental way. Expectations for change in Cuba should be kept modest – although we may yet be surprised again. Certainly, the prospects are greater today than at any time in the past 55 years.

Peter Hakim is the president emeritus at US-based centre for policy analysis Inter-American Dialogue.



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