By James A. Baer
July 22, 2015
On July 20 the Cuban flag was raised on the flag pole at 2630 16th street, NW in Washington DC marking the official re-opening of the Cuban Embassy in the United States. The Stars and Stripes will be raised for the first time in more than 50 years outside the US embassy in Havana when Secretary of State John Kerry visits Cuba in August. Full diplomatic ties have been reestablished between two nations that still have many outstanding differences, but have finally agreed to engage. There are still many issues to address, and much suspicion by each side of the other. The opening of embassies should be seen simply as one step in a very long process, despite the hype that accompanies such a dramatic event.
The US formally broke diplomatic ties with Cuba in January 1961, at a time when Fidel Castro’s regime became increasingly pro-Soviet and just four months before the US-backed invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs,. Over the decades of the Cold War, the US and Cuba have sparred over Russian missiles in Cuba, US reluctance to prosecute Cuban exile Luis Posadas Carriles (who participated in numerous terrorist attacks on Cuba, including alleged involvement in the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 75 people) and Cuban support for Marxist guerillas in Central America. Cuban exiles, many of them located in South Florida, have led a vocal resistance to any rapprochement with the communist regime in Cuba, and the US Congress has maintained a decades-old economic embargo of Cuba, restricting severely any activity that could provide the Cuban government with cash through trade.
Fidel Castro had continuously condemned the US for its embargo and its “imperialist” wars in Vietnam and the Middle East. The Cubans have sheltered US fugitives, the most notorious of whom, Assata Shakur (Jo Anne Chesimard) was involved in the shooting death of a New Jersey State Trooper. Castro sent Cubans to Angola and Ethiopia and supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Since the elder Castro’s withdrawal from the presidency in 2008 due to health issues and his brother, Raul’s ascension to power, several important changes have occurred in Cuba. The younger Castro has lifted some restrictions on internet use, small business activities and automobile and home ownership. At no time, however, has the Cuban regime reduced its political monopoly of power or its restrictions on speech and political activities opposing the government. Raul Castro seems to be trying to navigate the relatively narrow channel between economic reform and political control.
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 also signaled a change in US policy that finally bore fruit in the December 17, 2014 joint announcement of talks to reestablish full diplomatic ties between Cuba and the US. Obama has advocated for more dialog with traditional enemies and, with the assistance of Pope Francis, began the process for improving relations between the two countries. There are limits to what Obama can manage solely through executive action. He can re-open embassies and reduce restrictions on travel to Cuba. He cannot end the embargo, which needs Congressional action. In addition, the Obama administration cannot unilaterally end the communist government in Cuba, which is the goal of the US. Despite friendlier relations, the two countries continue to have many unresolved issues that will take time and compromise to overcome.
The United States wants to encourage more open political dialog in Cuba and pushes for Cubans to create civic associations outside the Communist Party. Such free speech and open engagement of opposition is fundamental to the US view of democracy. However, for the government of Raul Castro, such opposition is a very real danger to the revolution itself and cannot be permitted because of the fear that it will be used by the US to push its agenda in Cuba. Cubans, on the other hand, do want an end to the embargo, a more open economic system which gives them more opportunities and provides more goods at affordable prices. They do not want to lose control over their economy to powerful international corporations. Finally, as Cubans demand a US withdrawal from Guantanamo and reparations for the economic harm of the embargo, the US demands that Cuba return property taken from US citizens and companies and payment for the loss over decades with mounting interest. Obviously, neither side will obtain all its goals; both sides will need to compromise.
The difficult and contentious process of compromise is what will take time. Each country has powerful groups that do not want major changes. Some of the leaders of the Communist Party in Cuba fear that better relations with the US will weaken their hold on power and endanger the revolution. They may accept Raul’s modest economic reforms as short-term measures to strengthen the economy. However, there is a danger that these reforms may lead to increasing economic independence by individuals and a return to a market economy that brings greater class distinctions. One already sees resourceful entrepreneurs engaging in a variety of businesses. Those with ties to relatives abroad whose remittances provide capital and those connected with the tourist industry in Cuba and access to dollars are increasingly getting ahead of their fellow Cubans who are stuck with government wages. The Cuban government has announced that it is in the process of dismantling its two-currency economy with a return to a single Cuban peso, although there is no reliable timetable for the change to be completed.
In the US, older Cuban exiles and Republican lawmakers are opposed to any significant change in policy toward Cuba as long as the communist government controls the island. They believe Obama has given up too much already and received little in return. Perhaps the most dramatic result of Obama’s initiative was the release of the US citizen, Alan Gross, after years in a Cuban jail, along with some political prisoners. Those among the Cuban Five who remained in jail in the US under charges of espionage, were released and returned to Cuba as heroes. Despite support from the US Chamber of Commerce and many business groups for an end to the embargo and opening of trade with Cuba, these Republicans (along with New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez) argue that the US must continue to pressure Cuba to give in to US demands to open their political system.
Ceremonies at flag-raisings mark a real change in Cuba’s diplomatic relations with the US. However, the significance of these ceremonies is not in what has been achieved, but in what still needs to be resolved. One major difference is that now diplomats from both countries have better channels for these discussions.
James A. Baer is Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria and a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, DC