Cuba Primer: Explaining the Current US-Cuba Thaw

It has been nearly 50 years since the United States last held diplomatic ties with the Cuban government. Since the early 1960s, a total of nine U.S. presidents have held office, over 130 space shuttles have successfully orbited the earth, and the unresolved issue of anti-Black racism continues to crystalize the searing discrepancies between the expectations and realities for African Americans in this country.

And while there has certainly been formidable changes throughout the island since the 1960s, still, certain things remain unchanged:

  • A member of the Castro family remains in control of the island’s political helm. Although ceding power to his brother, Raul Castro, in 2008, Fidel Castro, today, remains peripherally involved through his social commentary on domestic and international issues.
  • Cuba continues to lead the world in the number of U.S. classic cars per capita. Since the embargo was initiated in 1960, Cuba’s streets have been jammed with Pontiacs, Chevrolets, and Oldsmobiles which were imported to Cuba prior to 1959.
  • Cuban streets continue to be accessorized with billboards and slogans that feature Cuban Revolutionary propaganda and adages like “Hasta La Victoria Siempre,” a phrase made famous by Argentinian born, Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. These revolutionary “advertisements” have helped to sustain much of the revolutionary fervor since the dethroning of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Known as a moderate on most economic and political issues, Raul Castro has implemented policies and undertaken fundamental reforms that have nudged the island from a socialist system into a more mixed-market economy since the transfer of power took place.

Beginning in 2008, the privatization of certain sectors of the economy have included: privately run restaurants called paladares, individually operated hotels known around the island as casa particulares, and the ability to purchase and sell private property. According to the Economist, private farmers, small businesses and cooperatives now make up approximately a fifth of the country’s labor force. These modifications, in many respects, have symbolized an “opening” and economic awakening of sorts, but, nonetheless, the Cuban economy remains stifled and almost completely reliant on a precarious tourism-based economy.

Earlier this week, on December 17, President Obama delivered a speech that outlined what many have labeled as a “new age” in the U.S.-Cuba saga. The normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and its Caribbean neighbor is unprecedented in the modern era and, according to a statement released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary, is geared towards “taking historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people.”

More specifically, the statement stipulates that the updated policy approach will, “re-establish a U.S. embassy in Havana, make it easier for Americans to provide business training for private Cuban businesses and small farmers, and will increase economic remittance levels from $500 to $2000 per quarter.”

This latest policy initiative comes at a time when President Obama has been under intense scrutiny for his unilateral action related to immigration in the past month.

While much of the vitriol and criticism towards President Obama has been evenly dispersed from members of the conservative party, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, has expressed some of the most conspicuous contempt for the latest shift in U.S.-Cuba relations.

“The White House has conceded everything, and gained little,” he said. “They gained no commitment on the part of the Cuban regime to freedom of press, or freedom of speech, or elections. No binding commitment was made to truly open up the Internet.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, also the son of a Cuban exile, echoed Rubio’s contempt for the policy in a recent article written for Time Magazine.

Speaking on the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in Cuba while working as a U.S. government subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2009, Cruz wrote, “We celebrate his return, but it should have been beholden on the Castro’s to demonstrate good faith in advance of any concessions on our part. And we should not be creating incentives for other oppressive regimes to seize and ransom American citizens.”

Cruz’ comments emerged following a prisoner exchange as the U.S. released three of the famed “Cuban Five,” – Cuban spies who were imprisoned in the U.S. in 1998, in exchange for Gross.

In addition, three Cuban intelligence agents were also released by the United States in return for Rolando Sarraff, a Cuban national who was imprisoned in a Cuban prison for over 20 years for conspiring with U.S. intelligence agencies. Cuba also agreed to release 53 people the US considers political prisoners.

The recent U.S.-Cuba initiative suggests that there is, indeed, a shift in the zeitgeist, and the potential for more lasting policy interventions in Cuba and throughout Latin America.

But, ultimately, President Obama’s plans for diplomatic normalization quell only a modicum of a larger and more pressing issue: the economic embargo, which was implemented in 1960, and has been widely criticized by the international community; it has been voted against by 188 out of 193 countries in the United Nations General Assembly.

Known throughout Cuba as the bloqueo, the embargo has not only negatively impacted the Cuban people by neglecting U.S. trade and goods to the island, but it has also worked against the U.S. as it has helped galvanize international support for the Castro led Cuban revolution since its inception in 1960.

Until the embargo is lifted, Cuban citizens will continue to live with a dearth of economic opportunities, and growing financial and racial disparities as over 90% of the economic remittances sent to Cuba are sent and received by white Cubans according to a staff member of the Casa de las Americas in Havana, Cuba.

The Obama administration hopes this week’s announcement can foster stronger lines of communication, increase trade, and establish a more congenial regional relationship with the island that’s located just 90 miles away from the state of Florida. While it may, in fact, symbolize the beginning of a sustainable diplomatic relationship committed to peace, equity, and mutual understanding between the U.S. and Cuba, real progress will come when we, as House Minority Nancy Pelosi, has eloquently stated, “acknowledge our policy towards Cuba is a relic of a bygone era that weakens our leadership in the Americas and has not advanced freedom and prosperity in Cuba.”

Photo by Idobi, CC BY-SA 3.0 

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