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“This is what change looks like”: Obama’s Direct Diplomacy with Cuba

Last week, the US and Cuba reopened their respective embassies in Washington and Havana after half a century of severed diplomatic ties. The rapprochement is the latest and the most symbolic move in the ‘Cuban thaw’ – the process of normalising US-Cuba relations that has ramped up since late 2014, after decades of Cold War estrangement.

President Obama has worked towards improving relations throughout his presidency and, as early as 2009, he relaxed travel restrictions for Americans with relatives in Cuba. Most recently, Obama has taken executive action to conduct high profile prisoner exchanges and removed Cuba from the ‘US State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list, stating that “at a time when we are focused on threats from al Qaeda to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.”

At the core of Obama’s initiative is a desire to achieve equal partnerships in the western hemisphere and to begin to repair the US-Cuba rift, characterised by the world’s longest running and arguably least successful trade embargo.

Support for a new era of relations is strong, with polls indicating that the majority of citizens in both Cuba and the US approve of the ‘thaw.’ Despite continued suspicion of the US, former Cuban President, Fidel Castro – the man at the centre of the relationship breakdown during the height of the Cold War – also approves restoration.

At this point, Obama has done virtually all that he can as president to improve relations since it is up to Congress to appoint a US ambassador to Cuba and to make changes to legislation governing the current embargoes. However this looks unlikely, as support for renewed bilateral relations is thin on the ground in the Republican Party, who currently hold a majority in both the House and Senate.

In substantiating their opposition to renewed relations, Republicans have expressed a deep mistrust of the Castro regime, conveying concerns that making concessions will yield neither benefit for America, nor positive political reform for the Cuban people.

In particular, 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush (R-FL) has stated that rapprochement will not encourage a shift toward democratic governance, only serving “to further legitimise Cuba’s repressive regime.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) similarly warned that engagement with Cuba is “willfully ignorant” and that a demand for Cuban political reform should precede US efforts to normalise relations. Further, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) cautioned that making significant concessions to Cuba would in no way incentivise Cuba to make concessions in return.

Republicans remain steadfast in their views despite the fact that a 2009 Senate review sponsored by Republican Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) found that the current Cuban policy is a failure. The longstanding embargo has not shaken the Castro regime or encouraged any reigning in of human rights abuses which include arbitrary imprisonment of dissidents, limits to freedom of expression and assembly, and strict press censorship.

Another roadblock to normalising relations is the issue of the Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez have broached the issue publicly in a press conference, with Kerry stating that despite Obama seeking to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, there is no intention to alter the current lease treaty or to return the land to Cuba. Conversely, Rodriguez has denied the existence of a lease treaty, saying that the return of the “illegally occupied territory” would provide an indication of US “respect for [Cuban] sovereignty” and he identifies this as something that the Cuban government will continue to pursue.

Beyond a mutual willingness to engage, there is still a long way to go between the small island nation and its powerful neighbour. Diverting sharply on important issues, Havana and Washington will have some tough negotiations ahead of them, which will extend long past Obama’s presidency. Republicans in Congress will also have to confront the reality that, while cooperating with Cuba is not ideal, continued isolation is no better.

However, even if progress moves at a glacial pace, it is still moving faster than change under any of Obama’s predecessors of the last fifty years.

Sophie Wilson is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

Image Credit: Jeremy Richardson (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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