What Fuelled the Cuban Thaw?

US Secretary of State John Kerry formally reopened the American embassy in Cuba on 14 August, a momentous occasion in relations that mark an end to one of the last residual conflicts of the Cold War. Relations between Havana and Washington had been suspended for more than half a century as a result of both Fidel Castro’s anti-American policies as well as the ideological divide of the Cold War. Not too long ago, relations were still sour. Two U.S. aircraft were shot down in 1996, leading to the notorious trade embargo being made permanent. In 1998, five Cuban intelligence agents were arrested in Miami while Allan Gross, an American sub-contractor, was arrested on charges of espionage. President Bush continued antagonising Cuba, placing Cuba on the list of sponsors of terrorism in 2002, strengthening the embargo and repeatedly calling for Cubans to push for democracy. However, in a mere year and half (and with the help of the Pope) the animosity between the two Cold War enemies was overturned. What were the factors behind the thaw in 2014?

Image courtesy of Day Donaldson © 2014, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Day Donaldson © 2014, some rights reserved

Raul Castro was handed the presidency by his ailing brother in 2008. Faced with economic crisis, he unveiled plans for reform in 2010, which aimed to transfer 40 per cent of the workforce into the private sector by 2015 an increase from 21 per cent. These measures include encouraging self-employment and allowing property to be traded. The introduction of elements of a free market system into the otherwise strict, planned economy created investment opportunities for American firms. The Cuban market could only be tapped into if the government eased restrictions and made moves to restore ties with Cuba.

The mutual benefits of cooperation can be seen in the subsequent American investment that poured into Cuba. Following the announcement to restore relations at the end of last year, large American firms such as Netflix and AirBnB have started providing services in Cuba. Both governments are also cooperating in oil development in Cuba, with the Department of Commerce inviting American investment and the US Coast Guard attending a drilling safety conference organised by an American firm in Havana.

 The reforms also saw the release of dozens of political prisoners between 2010 and 2011 and the easing of travel restrictions, allowing Cubans to travel abroad. The softening of the regime in terms of economics and human rights meant that restoring relations with Cuba was an easier step to take than it was under hard-line Fidel.

According to some, Raul’s move towards détente was fuelled by the need for a new benefactor after the death of Venezuela’s Chávez in 2013 saw a fall in subsidised oil imports. American visitors provided a promising source of income following Obama’s relaxation of travel restrictions in 2009. Polls conducted in Cuba show that an overwhelming 97 per cent of Cubans believe that restoration of ties will benefit Cuba, with many Cubans desiring access to basic goods from the U.S. and increased revenue from tourism. Castro may have caved in to this sentiment so as to appease the population while his slow moving reforms produced results. This appears to be the right move, as American travellers to Cuba have increased by 36 per cent between January and May this year, and this number can only be expected to increase.

A poll conducted in December, around the same time President Obama announced moves to restore ties with Cuba, shows that 63 per-cent of Americans are supportive of restoring relations with Cuba, a number that has increased steadily from 38 per-cent in 1998. It is likely that this shift in public opinion would be a factor that spurred Obama to include re-examining policy towards Cuba as a part of his agenda.

The Cuban-American community is a traditional source of influence on US policy towards Cuba, and while they were once the strongest supporters of the policy of isolation practiced on Cuba in the past, the sentiments of this demographic are changing.

Among the older generation of Cuban-Americans who emigrated between 1959 and 1980, 54 per cent are opposed to restoring ties[1]. This is a stark contrast to the newer generation of immigrants; 72.5 per cent of Cubans who arrived in the US between 1981 and 2014 favour restoring ties1. As for Cuban-Americans born in the United States, 66 per cent are supportive of warm relations with Cuba.

Polls show that the newer and younger generation of Cuban-Americans are supportive of an end to the US policy of isolation, and this meant that the older Cuban immigrants that so strongly opposed to relations with Cuba have now faded to a ‘grumpy minority’.

The Cuban-American community forms a strong voting bloc, accounting for 5 per cent of Florida’s population. With 55 per-cent of registered Cuban-American voters in favour of restoring ties1, both Republicans and Democrats have to seriously consider their Cuba policy or risk alienating this demographic. Obama won the Cuban-American vote in the 2012 election, and his outreach to Cuba is partly in acknowledgement of the desires of his Cuban-American voters.

When Bush entered office in 2001, he not only continued to isolate Cuba, but implemented measures designed to topple the Castro regime. This included a tougher embargo, tightening of financial restrictions and an information campaign targeted at the Cuban people. However, Obama recognised that isolation was not working; not only was the Castro regime no closer to its end, but it was also harming the Cuban people and damaging American reputation in Latin America. ‘It hasn’t worked for 50 years,’ said Obama in July, ‘it shuts America out of Cuba’s future, and it only makes life worse for the Cuban people’. The Cuban government estimates losses of US$1.25 trillion due to more than half a century of embargo. Obama reasoned that more good would come out of engagement.

Obama and Raul both entered office keen on repairing relations. Obama said at the 2009 Summit of the Americas that he was keen to move relations in a ‘new direction’, while Castro said at the same event that he was prepared to discuss ‘everything’ with Obama. An American move to restore relations with Cuba with Fidel still in charge would be nearly unthinkable; too much bad blood runs between both sides. In a letter, Fidel recently stated that he supported a peaceful resolution to the conflict but still distrusts the US and labelled them political adversaries. This distrust is probably fair, considering the fact that he allegedly has been the target of numerous CIA attempts on his life. Not only is Raul a fresh face, but his willingness to reform showed that perhaps things could change. As mentioned earlier, Obama promised to ease restrictions on Cuba in his Presidential campaign in order to win the Cuban-American vote. He fulfilled this promise in 2009, but was not obliged to go any further. Rapprochement in 2014 only came as a result of changes on the Cuban end. Obama would probably not have been able to justify restoring relations with the Communist regime if Raul had maintained his predecessors hard-line stance.

What does all this mean? Cubans had become increasingly discontent with the Communist regime’s inability to fix the economy, which has led to Raul’s reforms. Similarly, public opinion in the US has shifted over the pass fifteen years in support of an end to isolation and Obama responded to this by easing restrictions on Cuba when he entered office. However, with Raul’s reforms presenting an opportunity for change, as well as opportunity for business, Obama has gone further in engaging Cuba. After months of negotiation and concessions, both states felt comfortable enough to restore ties. Though many obstacles remain in US-Cuba relations, including the embargo and the issue of Guantanamo Bay, the progress made towards mutual reconciliation was a result of the desires of both states to cooperate, and if this does not change, there is no reason why full normalisation can’t be achieved.

[1]FIU Cuban Research Institute. (2014). 2014 FIU Cuba Poll. Miami: Cuban Research Institute.

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