Dispatches from the Potomac#13 | US and Cuba Normalize Diplomatic Relations after 54 Years

On July 1, President Obama officially announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. It has been 54 years since ties were cut in 1961, and 24 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ending the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, a situation that was a decisive reason for the deterioration of relations between the US and Cuba. Finally, the poor relationship between the US and Cuba, a lingering remnant of the Cold War, has been eliminated. This time, I would like to examine the relationship between the US and Cuba to commemorate this historic turning point.

This article was originally written in July for publication in the August 2015 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Takashi Imamura

Cuban Policy Turnaround – From Isolation to Inclusion

The US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, and has continued a policy of isolating Cuba since then, including the establishment of a Cuba Sanctions Act which imposed strict embargos against Cuba. This was not unprovoked. The Soviet Union was using and backing Cuba, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, where the US and Soviet Union were poised on the brink of all-out nuclear war. Throughout the Cold War, Cuba posed a threat to US security. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, Cuba lost their protector, and ceased to be a threat. Nevertheless, the US did not ease the sanctions; instead, the sanctions became even more severe in the mid-1990s. In recent years, although there has been an easing of tensions between the US and Cuba, particularly after the transfer of power from the previous President of the Council of State of Cuba, Fidel Castro, to his brother Raúl Castro in 2008, there was no change in the basic US policy toward Cuba. It has been said that this was partly due to the strong influence of an anti-Castro faction of Cuban-Americans.

During the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama made a pledge to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba; but, after taking office, was cautious about revising Cuban policy. The Summit of the Americas held in Colombia in April 2012 proved to be a turning point. The US blocked the participation of Cuba in the summit because of “inadequate progress on democracy,” resulting in criticism directed at President Obama from the leaders of many Latin American nations who sympathized with Cuba. President Obama himself recognized that the policy to isolate Cuba had stalled, and seems to have made the decision at this time to work to change the policy to one of inclusion. President Obama was re-elected the following autumn, and began secret negotiations with Cuba in the spring of 2013, with a total of nine meetings between the two nations over a period of 18 months, in locations like Canada. Through the mediation efforts of Pope Francis, a native of Argentina, in December 2014, both countries announced intentions to work toward normalization of relations. In April 2015, President Obama met publically with Chairman Raúl Castro. At the end of May, the US announced that Cuba was removed from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, leading up to the announcement on July 1 of the restoration of diplomatic relations and the reopening of the embassies.

Possible Difficulty Lifting Sanctions that Require Congressional Approval

Considering the 54-year history of interrupted diplomatic relations, the restoration after only a little more than two years of talks was extremely fast. In particular, the progress of the normalization talks was unexpected, since there were so many voices predicting difficulties when the initial announcements were made. This is an indication of the error of the US isolation policy. However, it is very unlikely that the easing of the sanctions will proceed with this same speed. To switch to a policy of inclusion, there are three steps required; measures that can be implemented by the administration alone, normalization talks between the US and Cuba, and finally, abolition and amendment of the Cuba Sanctions Act by the US Congress. The number of lawmakers opposed to this change in policy is still quite large.

The Republicans currently control Congress, and the majority of Republican lawmakers are convinced that the policy to isolate Cuba is correct. Even after President Obama announced the normalization of diplomatic relations, the Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, has not changed his stance opposing the lifting of sanctions until there is progress on achieving democracy in Cuba. Even more hardline in his opposition is the young senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American being eyed as a viable Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential election. Both these lawmakers believe that Cuba is still a threat to US security, and do not think there is any need to change the approach from more than half a century ago; that is, use sanctions to establish a democratic political system.

Although there is a lot of public support for the Obama administration’s change of policy toward Cuba, since most voters do not have a sense of urgency about it, it is difficult to apply pressure on the Republican Party to reconsider their stance. There is also a lot of support for an inclusive policy from industry, but the issue is not something to strongly press on Congress. In order to move the Republican-dominated Congress, changes in the form of progress on democratization in Cuba will probably be necessary. Although there is strong resistance from the current regime in Cuba, a rapid increase in interaction between US and Cuban people due to the restoration of diplomatic relations, along with the limited, through enhanced, bilateral economic relations, will probably encourage change in Cuba. Among the Cuban-American population as well there is a significant change occurring, with a majority of the younger generation born in the US supporting the normalization of relations. Depending on the results of the 2016 presidential election and congressional races, we may see a transformation to an inclusion policy toward Cuba under the next president inaugurated in 2017.