Louie Parker | Latin America Fellow
On 17 December 2014, former United States (US) President Obama announced that his administration was beginning a process to normalise relations with Cuba. “Isolation has not worked”, he declared in a rebuke of the previous policy’s inability to remove both the Castro regime and the wider communist system.
During the subsequent nine months, the Obama administration resumed flights to Cuba, removed Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and both countries’ embassies were reopened in Washington D.C. and Havana.
This shift in policy was a prudent course correction for several reasons, apart from merely demonstrating fresh thinking. Firstly, most countries in the world had already established diplomatic relations with Cuba, including liberal democracies such as Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada. This move brought the US in line with this global norm of Cuban engagement.
Secondly, it recognised the importance of engaging Cuba at the tail end of the Castro regime to ensure a continued détente under their successor. As the leaders of the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, the Castros had occupied the presidency for many decades with a hostile attitude to the US. The Obama administration hoped that their successor would discard this historical and familial antagonism.
With Fidel Castro not alive and his brother Raúl having stepped down in 2018, the responsibility of reinvigorating Cuba’s diplomatic relations now falls to current president Miguel Díaz-Canel.
However, the Trump administration has thrown what was a promising period of rapprochement into upheaval. The hawkish influence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security advisor John Bolton, both of whom oppose normalising relations with Cuba, has been reflected in the President’s policy.
In accordance with the full review of the Obama-era Cuba policy Trump announced after taking office, his administration proceeded with a range of measures designed to impose maximum pressure on the Caribbean nation. These included restricting flights to Cuba, the withdrawal of Havana-based embassy staff due to a suspected ‘sonic weapons’ attack, and the introduction of new sanctions.
These sanctions are new manifestations of the wider trade embargo the US instituted in 1962 amid worsening US-Cuban relations during the Cold War. This embargo, which limits almost all US exports to Cuba, is the greatest hurdle to a permanent normalisation of relations. Known as el bloqueo (the blockade) by Cubans, the policy has not generated results for two key reasons.
Firstly, the embargo is used as a stick without any countervailing carrot. There are no incentives to tempt the Cubans into taking action that would bring about its lifting.
Secondly, the embargo has no stated aims that are remotely realistic. With the exception of the Obama Administration, which attempted to unilaterally lift the embargo in 2016, US administrations have treated the embargo as an inherited fait accompli without any forethought on this strategy’s endgame. The Helms-Burton Act for example, which forms part of the wider embargo, requires that a transition government be instituted for complete or partial lifting of the embargo. This precondition of regime change in exchange for easing of the embargo is, at best, wishful thinking on the part of the US.
Furthermore, as noted by Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute and Associate Professor Joseph Gonzalez, the embargo fails to turn Cuban citizens against their own government. Instead, it strengthens their disdain for the US and gives the Cuban government a convenient excuse for their economic woes.
For there to be any traction in US-Cuban rapprochement, both parties will have to dispense with the Cold War mentality that defined their relationship in the past. President Trump will need to harness the willingness to engage with inimical powers he demonstrated when negotiating with North Korea. President Díaz Canel, for his part, will need to promptly take advantage of the post-Castro tailwind to reshape his country’s reputation in the US, Latin America and across the globe.
Coincidently, the current COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity for Cuba to reinvigorate its international engagement. Cuba’s medical expertise is world-renowned and they have been deploying medical brigades internationally since the 1960s to overcome their political isolation. Most notably, they were a leading country in responding to the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014-15.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Cuba has sent more than 20 medical brigades overseas to help combat its spread. This demonstration of goodwill toward other countries, particularly developing countries, is a key diplomatic tool for a country trying to recast an image beset by a poor human rights record.
But even here the influence of the embargo is felt. Although its provisions make exemptions for humanitarian goods such as food and medicine, these goods are still subject to onerous licensing requirements. United Nations Human Rights experts have noted that the embargo creates a “cumbersome” process of getting the required medicine, medical equipment and technology deployed within Cuba. If the embargo is not eased or lifted - at least temporarily - these experts warn it would hamper global efforts to curb the pandemic, treat patients and save lives.
Thus, there are real costs to reversing the rapprochement efforts of the Obama administration. Although immensely mismanaged by the current White House, this fleeting opportunity for meaningful engagement between the US and Cuba is not yet dead and buried. It merely requires buy-in from the US, given their role in undoing the progress made and their determined upholding of the embargo.
Louie Parker is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs