Cuba and the USA dare a historic rapprochement. Now President Obama must get serious and end the blockade
Within a few hours, the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, which has been deadlocked for decades, has changed fundamentally. According to an apparently carefully planned schedule, the release of imprisoned intelligence officers from both sides was announced and carried out yesterday in Washington and Havana.
U.S. President Obama during his declaration on Cuba. Image: Screenshot of the video of the White House
Released from prison in Cuba was 65-year-old Alan Gross. He was imprisoned in 2009 for smuggling espionage equipment he was carrying for covert political missions for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). A CIA spy was also released. Dozens of system oppositionists in Cuba can hope for a prison term. In the U.S., in turn, the last three members of the "Cuban Five" released. The men had been imprisoned in 1998 for observing violent Cuban exile groups in the U.S. on behalf of Havana.
Just hours after the exchange, the presidents of both countries, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, appeared before the cameras. In both cases they were historic speeches.
Cuban President Raúl Castro Announces Resumption of Diplomatic Relations. Image: Screenshot from Telesur video
Observers of U.S.-Cuban relations had already expected a major shift. There were, after all, a number of signs of this:
- Obama had long announced a reassessment of Cuba policy – and had little to lose in second term.
- In February of this year, a group of U.S. Senators traveled to Havana for the second time to meet with President Raúl Castro.
- Latin American countries had massively increased the prere on Washington to end the political isolation policy against Cuba and to virtually end with a boycott of the upcoming "Summit of the Americas" threatened in Panama, Panama had invited Raúl Castro to attend.
- In recent months, leading U.S. media outlets such as the New York Times had waged a veritable media campaign against the blockade, triggering a broad debate.
- Cuba had – as announced in Brussels – suspended the ongoing negotiations on a political agreement with the EU a few days ago – apparently in order to resume the talks now under new auspices.
- On Tuesday, Obama and Castro had spoken on the phone for about an hour. It was the first direct contact at this level since the Cuban Revolution.
Obama’s announcement is only the first step
Obama announced resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba in speech lasting about a quarter of an hour. He has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to initiate appropriate negotiations. Since the administration of President James Carter, the U.S. has had only one representation of interests in Havana. Now an embassy is to be opened again.
Obama also imposed a series of measures to improve relations: Freedom of travel for U.S. citizens, remittances, trade. "Isolation policy against Cuba has not worked", so his resume. Therefore, he said, he wants to work in Congress for an end to the blockade laws, which are known in the U.S. as the "Embargo" be called.
Raúl Castro acknowledged the USA’s move in his speech. Barack Obama deserved "the respect of all people", said Castro, who was dressed in the uniform of the commander in chief of the armed forces. At the same time, the younger brother of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro thanked the Vatican for its mediation in recent months.
For all his euphoria, however, he also dampened expectations for a rapid full normalization of relations: "The economic, trade and financial blockade, which causes enormous damage to the economy and the people of our nation, must be ended." Even if they are laws, the President can influence their application.
It will indeed be exciting to see how Obama’s push will be received in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Immediately after the President’s speech, US-Cuban Senator Marco Rubio spoke out with a stern attack against Obama. The chairman of the Senate’s Aube Policy Committee, Bob Menendez, was not pleased either, not to mention the exiled Cuban hardliners in Miami.
But Obama has little left to lose. And the positioning for or against the Cuba blockade can no longer be defined by party lines in the USA. Rubio, for example, is a Republican, Menendez a Democrat.
Geopolitical goals unclear, EU caught off guard
And the European Union? It plays no role in this almost geopolitical realignment. What’s more, politicians and diplomats in Brussels who deal with EU-Latin American relations may have been caught off guard by today’s developments. Only a few days ago, Cuba cancelled a round of negotiations with Brussels, whereupon the reason was discussed. The U.S.-Cuban castling thus makes clear once again how insignificant the EU is on the international level. Because while the member states have been blocking each other for years, today Obama has changed the conditions in one move and put the USA in a much better position than the EU.
Geopolitical classification of today’s events is still difficult. It could not be a coincidence that the US government has just decided on new sanctions against Venezuela, while in the case of Cuba the thumbscrews are being loosened. As I said, diplomats in Washington have long admitted in private that the antiquated isolationist policy against Cuba – a long-delayed legacy – has recently become a serious problem in relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. Russia in particular had recently taken advantage of this situation to massively expand the political and economic ties. In Washington, the realization seems to have set in that action must be taken now. Insofar as the resistance of the traditionally powerful Cuban exile allows it.