by María Dolores Novella Domínguez
On 17 December 2014, the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba agreed to re-open relations, marking the end of a commercial and diplomatic stalemate that has persisted over half a century.
The repercussions of this event have been felt not only in the political arena, beginning with the end of Cuba’s diplomatic isolation, but also in the economic sphere, thanks to the reform of travel, banking and investment regulations.
Historically, relations between Cuba and the United States have been dominated by trade. While their first contact dates back to the slave trade of the 18th century, their bond strengthened after the Spanish-American War in 1898, which led to the independence of the island from Spain, opening the door for the United States’ to exert increasing economic influence.
Following close relations during the era of Fulgencio Batista, the first Cuban president and later dictator, the Cuban Revolution in 1959, despite its recognition by the United States, marked the beginning of a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the two countries. Fidel Castro nationalized foreign companies and prompted radical land reforms and expropriations while increasing trade with the Soviet Union. Such policies largely harmed the upper class and many American-owned enterprises and resulted in the U.S.’ final response to impose a full embargo on the island. This stringent sanction was followed by a series of political tensions between the two, such as the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, affairs which only increased Cuba’s isolation.
The frozen conflict recently began to thaw after months of talks between the two governments, both of whom were relying on the encouragement and mediation by Pope Francis. An exchange of prisoners was the first evidence of diplomatic change, and the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism last May represented further progress towards what is said to be the next step: the opening of embassies in the respective countries.
All of these facts show that the rapprochement is slowly taking form and initial skepticism is starting to be swept away. Nevertheless, the removal of the embargo, which in the end is the main concern, will most likely take a while to fully materialize. Decisions on economic sanctions depend on Congress and the lifting of the Helms-Burton Act, created with a view to strengthening the embargo against Cuba until the country demonstrates its intention to establish a democratic regime. This clearly is not to be anticipated in the immediate future.
On the island itself, initial skepticism and reluctance among the local population was followed by a ray of hope as people began to envisage, according to the Cuban newspaper Granma, a “propitious bilateral context to advance in the re-establishment of the relations and the opening of the embassies.” For President Raúl Castro, this is about an extension rather than normalization of the relations, since the latter would require a complete suspension of the embargo and the returning of the territory used by the U.S. at Guantánamo Bay.
With regard to American attitudes, there is a generally positive consensus about the restoration of ties with Cuba. Furthermore, some experts, such as Julia Sweig, the specialist in Latin America and U.S. – Latin America relations, trusts that opening up to Cuba will motivate the island to undertake reforms promoting human rights and democracy. Others feel that building new ties may entail a broadening of the market for U.S. enterprises in the rest of Latin America.
Most Latin American leaders have also praised the reconciliation effort. Pressures exerted by some of them contributed to the inclusion of Cuba in the latest Summit of the Americas last April, which was the first time that Cuba participated in a meeting of such caliber and ultimately provided the world with a picture of Obama and Castro shaking hands.
Despite the slow pace and the long transition that lies ahead, change is now tangible and there is a clear advancement of public opinion, as well. For the first time in decades, Cuba is willing to welcome American capital, investment and know-how. Meanwhile, the U.S. is likely to respond to this by promoting political change via economic tools, with a view to further its economic interests and to push Cuba toward embracing fundamental freedoms. In any case, the now famous handshake of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama surely marks a radical change in the bilateral relations of Cuba and the United States and due to the twists, turns and tensions that surrounded this affair, is nothing short of a historical turning point.