Approximately 140 kilometres outside the Cuban capital of Havana lies a small town of less than 9,000 people which bears the name of an old sugar mill that used to dominate the landscape - Australia. For the last half century this has been about the only connection that Australia has had with Cuba. The Australian government’s historic first business delegation to Cuba, an event which went largely unnoticed by the Australian media, might just change all that.
The trip, led by former Trade Minister and current Special Envoy for Trade Andrew Robb, marks a near complete normalisation of relations between Australia and the isolated socialist state of Cuba, a process which began back in 1989 when the Hawke Labor Government abandoned the policy of withholding recognition of foreign states. In 1995 Gareth Evans became the first Australian Foreign Minister to visit the island, a trip which also included a meeting with President Fidel Castro. Another significant step occurred in 2008 with the opening of the Cuban embassy in Canberra, although Australia is yet to establish a reciprocal embassy in Havana. This effort to develop stronger relations between the two nations was strengthened under the Rudd Labor Government with reciprocal visits of foreign ministers in 2009 and 2010. That this mission was planned by the Turnbull Liberal Government attests to the bipartisan approach which characterises the Australian policy of developing closer relations with Cuba.
To understand the Australian policy shift, we need to understand the larger geopolitical context, namely the tense relationship between Cuba and the United States of America, Australia’s closest ally. This relationship has been marked by hostility since the Cuban revolution in 1959 which brought Fidel Castro and his Communist Party to power. The sudden appearance of a Communist country in its hemisphere, particularly one within 90 miles of its territorial boundaries, was a source of great alarm for the United States. Attempts by Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy to overthrow Castro’s regime ended in disaster for America with the embarrassing failure of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. This led the Cuban government to seek the protection of the Soviet Union, whose decision to place a number of nuclear weapons in Cuba led to the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Even after the removal of the weapons, the United States maintained strict policies of economic embargo and travel restrictions. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the global threat of communism, restraints remained.
While Australia has no formal policy of sanctions against Cuba, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade notes that America’s sanctions regime presents “an impediment to trade between Australia and Cuba”. Australia has been a consistent supporter of United Nations resolutions calling for the cessation of the United States’ trade embargo but it is not a priority in the Australia-United States relationship and it’s unlikely any Australian delegate saw the need to directly lobby the U.S. about this matter.
Australia’s move towards the policy of normalisation is inextricably linked to efforts of rapprochement made in the past eighteen month by U.S. President Barack Obama. Obama has sought to symbolically and materially alter the nature of Cuban-American relations as one of the major foreign policy acts of the remainder of his presidency. Symbolically, he has announced the re-opening of the US embassy in Havana which was closed by President Eisenhower in 1961. In more substantial terms, he has announced the relaxation of travel restrictions, made it easier for Cuban-Americans to transfer money back to Cuba and has sought to reduce the crippling economic sanctions that some economists believe have contributed significantly to Cuba’s moribund economy. He has denounced the sanctions as the “legacy of a failed policy” but ultimately it will be up to the Republican-controlled Congress to remove the restrictions. President Obama has also announced that in March this year he will make the first Presidential visit to the island nation since Castro came to power.
But what does this mean for Australia? Despite the lack of a relationship between Cuba and Australia there was never the same degree of hostility, and so not as many symbolic gestures are required. The most significant advancements to be made in the Cuban-Australia relationship will be in terms of business and tourism. The Australian government is eager to encourage exports, particularly in mining, agriculture, and medical technology. Cuban-Australian trade accounted for only $AUD 15 million in 2014-15 so there is considerable room for growth. Australia has sought to be an “early mover” in terms of Cuba as part of an aggressive strategy to encourage greater international trade, as seen in the recently proliferation of Free Trade Agreements that the Australian government has signed. The relaxation of United States sanctions has also proved a boon for Australian travellers with the number of Australians visiting Cuba in 2015 being nearly double that of 2014, with predictions of further increase for 2016.
The Australian delegation to Cuba marks an important moment for both nations. For Cuba it provides an opportunity to engage with one of the world’s top 20 trading economies and presents a possible precedent for further economic co-operation with other capitalist nations. For Australia it is a prime opportunity to act as a strong middle power by helping to usher in a period of economic engagement and liberalisation for Cuba. It is also a way to strengthen its relationship with the United States but through a policy which seeks to reinforce Washington’s agenda as an equal, rather than playing its traditional subordinate role.
Mitchell Robertson is the US Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Filipe Castilhos (Flickr: Creative Commons)