The U.S. and Cuban governments announced on August 31 negotiations to resume direct postal service between the two nations. These talks will be a test of how well both parties can engage. The news came on the back of a meeting between U.S. and Cuban representatives in July on migration issues, and was a further sign of the efforts undertaken to end the lengthy stand-off between the two countries.

Obama’s Slow-Thaw Cuba Policy

Re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba will be a slow
process. Photo:

For a marker of how much hope Obama brought with him when he entered the White House, one need look no further than his visit to the Summit of the Americas three months after being inaugurated. Stepping forward through the universal applause that greeted Obama were current U.S. bêtes noires, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, bearing gifts and holding out their hands in friendship.

Riding this wave of optimism and reconciliation, the theory held that if fresher antagonisms could be laid to rest, then why not those with deeper roots? Prior to the summit, speculation on the future for U.S.-Cuban relations dominated the press. During his election campaign, Mr. Obama promised to meet with the leaders of Cuba without preconditions. Many believed that the president took the first diplomatic steps in ameliorating relations by lifting some Cuban travel and remittance restrictions weeks before the April Summit, changes that were formalized on Sept. 3 this year. In addition, the United States supported a resolution in June to allow Cuba to be readmitted to the Organization of American States (OAS).

However, since the summit, President Obama has had a full plate of foreign issues: North Korea has tested a long-range nuclear rocket, Iran recently experienced lengthy street protests in response to disputed election results, and President Obama himself has delivered a policy-defining speech in the Middle East. Amid the turmoil of global affairs, many wonder if the United States has once again taken its eye off its "back yard." After the Obama camp’s tentative first moves, many observers are now wondering which direction U.S.-Cuba relations will take.

Recent changes at the top in Washington and Havana have not proven to be a panacea for the issues of the past. Indeed, many historic wounds remain unhealed. Principal among the various topics for discussion is the trade embargo that prohibits the export of products and technology from the United States and the import of Cuban goods, and has stoked tensions, not only with Cuba but with most of the rest of the Hemisphere. Cuba would like to see an end to the embargo whereas the United States appears unwilling to play what it considers to be its most powerful card until it sees what it considers positive changes on the Cuban side.

The embargo has also proven to be particularly unpopular due to the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which extended the territorial application of the embargo, applying it to foreign companies. The Act was condemned by the European Union and many other traditional U.S. allies who believed that the United States was trying to force other countries to follow its foreign policy goals.

Despite criticism, Obama recently extended the embargo for one year, although it must be noted that the move was merely ceremonial, given that the Helms-Burton Act affirms that only Congress can take action to specifically end the embargo.

Against this backdrop, Obama’s easing of travel and remittance restrictions this month was akin to moving the first pawn in what has become a 50-year game of diplomatic chess. The ethos inside the current White House appears to be that it is now up to Cuba to make the next move. To that end, the United States is pressuring for human rights advances in the country, and in particular, it desires the release of Cuban political prisoners. Action on this matter by Cuba would constitute a reciprocal move and thus would be a minor success for the U.S. government, enabling it to proceed with opening up its own policies. Meanwhile, citizens’ organizations in the United States are calling for lifting the travel ban for non-Cubans, with groups like the Latin American Working Group calling for an end to "a failed and unjust policy that restricts American liberties and hurts Cuban families." Legislation in the House has already garnered considerable support.

Signs from Cuba indicate that token gestures will not entice the Cuban government into altering its stance on larger issues. The overseas confusion over which Castro brother, Raul or Fidel, wields true power in Cuba was raised again in April when Raul was reported to have promised to discuss "everything, everything, everything" with the United States, including political prisoners and human rights. Elder brother Fidel was quick to pour cold water on the proposal by claiming that the Obama administration "without a doubt misinterpreted Raul’s declarations."

Setting the Agenda

Cuba has a number of bones to pick with the United States. After the embargo, the next topic on the Cuban agenda is Guantanamo Bay. The area on the southern tip of Cuba is under U.S. territorial control, where it operates a naval base and an infamous detention camp. The land is leased perpetually by the United States and was acquired as part of a 1903 agreement to end the Spanish-American War. The United States pays annually for the lease, but Cuba does not accept the fee. The Cuban government strongly believes that the United States gained the territory by threat of force, which violates international law. As such, Cuba demands that the United States hand back the territory and its soldiers leave what it deems to be Cuba’s sovereign territory. Shortly after taking office, Obama announced that he would close the Guantanamo Bay prison by early 2010, thus ending a shameful chapter in modern American history which involved torture and illegal detention. However, there has been much debate over where Guantanamo prisoners should subsequently be held, and Obama will have to resolve this issue in order to fulfill his promise.

Also contentious is the case of the so-called "Cuban Five." In the early 90s, this group of five Cuban men was sent by its government to infiltrate anti-Castro organizations operating from Miami and predominantly comprised of Cuban exiles. In 1995, U.S. authorities arrested the men and U.S. courts convicted them of espionage and handed out sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment. The case caused controversy in the United States while the group attained celebrity status in Cuba. A review of the Cuban Five case is considered a possible quid pro quo for concessions from the Cuban government.

The United States took a positive step in April this year by indicting Luis Posada, a man wanted by the Castro government for his role in terrorist attacks against Cuba. Appeals for his extradition had previously been ignored by the Bush administration, provoking outrage in Cuba. Developments in this case will be closely monitored by the Cuban government.

To Precondition or Not to Precondition

If, as he said during the campaign, President Obama is willing to talk to Cuba without preconditions, then perhaps it makes sense to continue with diplomatic moves to open a dialogue with Cuba, rather than waiting for symbolic ripostes. The United States certainly has a lot to gain from an amicable partnership with its neighbor. First, developing diplomacy with Cuba could have a ripple effect in Latin America, and signal a new dawn in relations with nations typically wary of the role played by the United States. It is possible that, after seeing positive actions in Cuba, left-leaning countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador would take a more favorable view of the Obama administration, beyond the simple pleasantries seen at the Summit of the Americas.

Second, in relative terms, repairing ties with Cuba seems to be an easier task than doing so with the other "rogue regimes" that were mentioned during the presidential campaign. Cuba does not represent a clear and present danger to the United States, in the manner that Iran or North Korea might, and as such there is no security risk in the United States talking to its neighbor. The real risk is domestic—hard-line anti-Castro forces hold offices in Congress and are extremely vociferous, despite evidence of their waning demographics.

Third, the United States should also remove Cuba from its list of sponsors of state terrorism, given that there is no current evidence to support this theory. Improved relations with Cuba could be an "easy score" and a logical step given the failure of the embargo to achieve any kind of transition, at high political and economic costs. It could be a prime example of the diplomacy promised by the new government, which has stated repeatedly its aim to favor dialogue over rigid Cold War-era ideological positions.

Fourth, despite the fact that the Cuban-American demographic has long objected to any rapprochement, a CNN poll from April this year showed that 71% of Americans believe that diplomatic relations with Cuba should be reestablished. U.S. businesses are also getting fed up with the limitations imposed on them by the embargo, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently stating that, "The last 50 years of our embargo against Cuba have proven that unilateral sanctions do not work."

Finally, the fact that the European Union and other Western nations have relations with Cuba coupled with the fact that the United States enjoys a close partnership with "Communist" China, should signify that the supposed ideological barriers to talks have become obsolete. In short, U.S.-Cuban relationship problems belong to another era. As Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. interests section in Havana, puts it, "U.S. policy toward Cuba long ago ceased to make any sense." To embrace the bold future that his elections promised, Mr. Obama would do well to dispense with his nation’s increasingly distant past.

Right Message = Right Results

The first step would be for the Obama camp to signal to Cuba that it does not intend to impose "regime change"—a loaded term that characterized Bush II foreign policy and was a constant barrier to any potential diplomacy. The U.S. government should make clear to the Cuban government that its first priority is the release of political prisoners and more individual freedoms for the Cuban people. Mr. Obama has a lot to contend with just now—health care, the economic crisis, Iraq, Iran, Af-Pak, etc.—and cannot afford a total and uncertain overhaul of U.S.-Cuban relations. This message should be transmitted to the Castro government, especially given that Raul Castro recently told the Cuban National Assembly that, "We are ready to talk about everything but not to negotiate our political and social system."

Re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba will be a slow process and with the many problems facing the U.S. administration, resolving this outdated stand-off may be perceived as a low priority. Nevertheless, President Obama may find it easier to move forward if he jettisons the inherited anchors of the past for a more pragmatic and consistent approach that could open up dialogue and win points in the international arena. Raul Castro should similarly consider the benefits of a fresh start with the United States and the advantages that his people could gain through a peaceful relationship with their neighbors.

In any case, both governments should be acutely aware that it may not take long for Cubans and Americans alike to lose the optimism once generated by the election of President Obama.