May 24, 2018  

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Which way forward for the U.S. and Cuba?

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On Dec. 17, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro made simultaneous, significant announcements about the future of the United States and Cuba. The two countries will resume diplomatic relations, restrictions on U.S. telecommunications sales in Cuba will be removed, and each side has agreed to exchange prisoners. For citizens and policymakers of different political stripes, such a move is long overdue but also just a starting point.

The United States’ economic embargo of Cuba remains and can only be abrogated by the U.S. Congress. The new agreements have created an unprecedented opportunity to establish full economic relations by removing some of the major obstacles to diplomatic talks. Only time and elections will tell what comes of this new opportunity.

The United States’ ties with Cuba have been severed for over fifty years though their relations before that were extensive. Between Cuba’s 1898 independence from Spain and the 1959 success of Fidel Castro’s revolution, the Caribbean island had significant political, economic, and cultural exchanges with the United States. Political relationships between the countries were not always smooth, with the U.S. rightfully criticized for heavy-handedness and acts of imperial domination. However, the mutual cultural influences were unmistakable. To name but a few, baseball remains the most popular sport in Cuba, Cuban music consistently found an audience in the states, and U.S. tourists flocked in droves to the island that was only ninety miles south of Florida.

Such close ties made President Eisenhower’s 1960 decision to enact an economic embargo against Cuba all the more striking. The shift, which came on the heels of diplomatic fallout over American properties and Soviet oil in Cuba, was designed to create enough hardship among Cuba’s citizenry to encourage them to rise up against the Castro regime. Since its inception, the embargo has contributed to Cuba’s conditions of material want though the popular uprising never materialized. Instead, the embargo has contributed to the longevity of the Castro regime by providing a handy scapegoat for the island’s economic problems and enabled the government to control information on the island. Sadly, the embargo is hurting the people it was designed to help and helping the government it was designed to pressure.

Wednesday’s speeches and the agreements they represent create conditions to end an embargo that many believe is working against U.S. interests abroad. The definitive end of the Cold War and the fact that the United States has normal diplomatic and economic relationships with other Communist governments has created a chorus of Democratic and Republican critics of the embargo. Of course, supporters remain as well.

In the past years, there have been two major obstacles to talks between the U.S. and Cuba—these are the very issues that the agreements address. The first is that Alan Gross, an American citizen working for USAID, had been incarcerated in Cuba since 2009 for allegedly distributing satellite equipment to Cuban opposition groups. By brokering Gross’ and others’ releases through a prisoner exchange, the agreement has removed one of the biggest distractions to substantive diplomatic talks. The second is that the U.S. embargo has as many domestic as foreign policy ramifications. For many years, conventional wisdom was that Cuban-American exiles in Miami were a well-mobilized and well-funded group that staunchly supported the embargo. As long as Florida had enough electoral votes to shape presidential elections, few candidates would risk eliminating the embargo.

This may be changing. Geopolitical shifts and generational changes in the Cuban-American community explain why more second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans have voiced their opposition to the embargo. Of course, this is only a bourgeoning trend and the embargo still has strong support with younger Cuban-Americans as Marco Rubio perfectly exemplifies. By bringing the United States’ relationship with Cuba up for public debate as elections loom, Obama’s speech will test the veracity and extent of this shift among Cuban-Americans. Unless Congress votes to end the embargo before 2016, which seems highly unlikely, Wednesday’s speech has ensured that all presidential candidates will have to address the political minefield of the United States’ relationship with Cuba. Will traditional support for the embargo in Florida scare candidates away? Or will new challenges to the policy lead to different political platforms?

Political prisoners in Cuba and the United States are now free and the issue of the United States’ relationship with Cuba has been brought up for public debate in the U.S. The preconditions for more significant and lasting transformations are in place and we all must wait to see what the future holds. In the meantime, we should vote.