US-Cuba Thaw After 50 Tense Years

Obama announced a number of sweeping policy changes. Change is in the interests of both nations. The tense relationship between the two sides has a long and complicated history.

Posted on 12/18/14
By Mervyn Bain, University of Aberdeen | Via The Conversation
President Obama made the historic announcement. (Photo by US embassy, Creative Commons License)
President Obama made the historic announcement. (Photo by US embassy, Creative Commons License)

In the United States and Cuba’s strained relationship over the past 50-odd years, certain key flashpoints stand out: the Bay of Pigs incident, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and many more. December 17 2014 can now be added to the list.

A Twisted Tale of Two Countries

By James G. Hershberg

Via The Conversation

The action by President Obama to move toward the normalization of US-Cuba relations is long overdue.

The US ruptured ties with Cuba in early January 1961, under President Eisenhower, not only in the context of the cold war with communism and the Soviet Union but in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion. That invasion, by anti-Castro Cuban exiles armed, equipped, organized, trained and financed by the US government (i.e., the CIA and Pentagon), had been approved in principle by Eisenhower in March 1960 but was carried out under the new president, John F. Kennedy, in April 1961.

That operation failed disastrously; and contrary to claims by some, it’s far from likely it would have succeeded had JFK ordered direct air support which he refused to do. Castro’s armed forces and militia far outnumbered the invaders. The Kennedy administration concentrated on trying to organize and strengthen Cuba’s diplomatic, political, and economic isolation in hopes of weakening Castro’s regime.

The administration hoped he could be overthrown and/or his survival would be such an economic burden to Moscow that it could not be sustained. The Kennedy administration combined those measures with covert operations (code-named “Operation Mongoose”) and continued assassination plotting.

Despite exacerbating Cuba’s myriad economic failures, the range of US anti-Castro efforts failed to cause his downfall and instead helped him to pose as a nationalist defender of the island against the “Yankee colossus” to the north. And the freeze continues LBJ scaled back the covert anti-Castro campaign after JFK’s murder, but he and his successors – until today – left the essential diplomatic impasse in place, despite a few furtive, abortive efforts to overcome it through secret exchanges that were derailed for various reasons. (These took place under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, against the backdrop of detente with the Soviet Union.)

For more than two decades after the cold war ended with the collapse of the Soviet empire and then the USSR itself in 1989-91, the policy persisted. This was not due to any evident success in helping Cubans obtain greater freedoms or inducing Fidel Castro (or his brother) to institute reforms. Quite the contrary. It was simply due to US domestic politics, that is, the perceived influence of anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami and south Florida to swing elections. Yet for some years, amid generational shifts, that community has become far less monolithic in its rigid opposition to normalizing relations, and the political consequences far less clear.

From the start, the policy of non-recognition – echoing the idea promulgated by Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson in refusing to recognize the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria in the early 1930s – reflected a mistaken notion that simply transacting normal diplomatic business with a government that controlled its national territory (for better or worse) conferred some sort of moral approval of its conduct. If it did, the US probably wouldn’t recognize scores, if not more, of other countries.

Like sanctions, non-recognition can be a device for striking poses on the domestic or (less important to US politicians) international stage, rather than a practical policy. Now, however, when US-Cuban relations truly normalize, we will finally get a test of what some analysts think will be a process far more likely to produce positive change for the Cuban people. Rather than relying, through inertia, on an anachronistic and increasingly ineffective policy of isolation, let Cuba be flooded with US ideas, products, dollars, and tourists.

It worked wonders for helping to end the cold war (as I learned by visiting the Soviet Union and its East-Central European allies in 1988-91). Let’s see if the new reality can enhance prospects for a peaceful transition as well in Cuba. James G.

Hershberg is a Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

This article first appeared in The Conversation. Click here to go to the original.

On that day, one of the most problematic issues in the relationship was resolved when the US citizen Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned in Cuba for over five years for illegally importing satellite equipment to the island was released from prison and allowed to return to the US, along with an unnamed US intelligence agent.


And in what very much appeared to be a prisoner swap, the remaining members of the “Cuban Five”, a group of Cuban intelligence officers imprisoned in the US for infiltrating exile groups in Florida, were also allowed to return home.


But above all, the US president, Barack Obama, announced a number of sweeping changes to Washington’s Cuba policy.


These included the start of bilateral talks to recommence diplomatic relations, an examination of the reasons why Cuba remains on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and the relaxation of travel, trade and information flows between the two countries. He also said that he would welcome Cuba’s return to the Organization of American states (OAS).


This of course raises the question of why these unexpected events have occurred now.


High time

Put simply, change is in both countries’ interests. Cuba’s main motive may be a base economic one: since the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in February 2013, Cuba’s supply of oil has been in jeopardy thanks to both both Venezuela’s unstable economy and the prospect of a post-socialist government in Caracas.


Meanwhile, the political influence that Cuba wields throughout Latin America has left the US somewhat isolated in the region. Washington’s out-of-date Cuba policy has only compounded this major political problem, and embarrassed it at crucial moments.

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa has shown just how damaging the situation is for the US’s image; Cuba has been a major player in the international effort against the disease, but the US’s unwillingness to work with Havana has come across as absurdly outdated Cold War rhetoric, and seemed ludicrous in the face of a desperate humanitarian crisis.


In addition, the composition of the highly important and influential Cuban American exile community within the US is changing, and its politics have changed too. Whereas previous generations were traditionally Republican-voting and pro-embargo, younger generations have a far more circumspect stance.


Long way to go

The sudden announcements reflect the deep changes which have been taking place in Cuba, and particularly in foreign policy, since Raúl Castro became president in 2008. They are also in accordance with Obama’s May 2008 promise to reset relations with Cuba and Latin America at large.


Of course, real change to the American embargo against Cuba will be difficult. The freeze on trade and travel is codified in US law, and it will require a majority of the US Congress to vote to overturn it. This may be a big ask, not least since Cuban-American members of Congress are unlikely to back the change.


Meanwhile, only days before the announcement, former governor of Florida Jeb Bush could become the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 2016. His brother George W Bush tightened the embargo during his presidency, and the expectation is that Jeb too would hardly be inclined to offer a friendly hand to Havana.


Still, this is not to detract from the truly historic events and announcements of December 17. At last, the remnants of the Cold War that remain in place across the Florida Straits are being dismantled, and that is a major cause for celebration.


Mervyn Bain is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at University of Aberdeen

This article first appeared in The Conversation. Click here to go to the original.

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