By Lawrence Gutman
It’s hard to believe so much has happened so fast. Since Presidents Obama and Castro appeared on split screens to announce the renewal of U.S.-Cuba relations last December, diplomatic ties have been fully normalized and bilateral trade is accelerating toward restoration as well. For U.S.-Cuba observers accustomed to decades of sporadic news and the occasional front-page story, the developments of the past nine months have constituted a frenzy of activity. It hardly bears mentioning that the old cliché of U.S.-Cuba relations as “frozen in time” has disappeared from the headlines and will likely never reappear again.
As restored diplomacy begins its first year, it certainly bears recapping some key milestones since “D-17.” In the wake of last December’s presidential announcements and on the eve of the most productive period of U.S.-Cuba negotiations in at least half a century, U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross, 53 Cuban dissidents, and three members of the so-called “Cuban Five” spy ring were released from prison. In January, the White House relaxed restrictions on travel and increased limits on U.S. remittances to the island fourfold.
In February, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Havana and Netflix began offering its streaming services on the island. Trade missions organized by U.S. public officials and business leaders followed shortly thereafter. In April, the first public opinion poll of Cubans reported that over 95 percent see normalized relations as beneficial for their country, two dissidents appeared on municipal election ballots, and Airbnb established an online rental market across Cuba. The U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror in May and, in doing so, enabled Cuban access to international financial institutions, transactions, and loans. Cuba’s embassy in Washington re-opened in July, and Secretary of State John Kerry re-opened the U.S. embassy in Havana during a historic ceremony in August.
In another sign of historic change, these developments have not been accompanied by the intense polarization that drove U.S.-Cuba policy debates during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Welcomed by their supporters, the shifts toward closer bilateral ties have largely been met by opponents with a sense of resignation that normalization’s time has come. After decades of bitter struggle, there has been surprisingly little gloating and few confrontations. One observer noted that the number of journalists covering protests in Miami’s Little Havana often exceeds the number of actual protestors. In perhaps the most telling proof that the normalization fight is over, U.S.-Cuba relations have barely registered in a Republican primary process with multiple candidates connected to the island and/or the Cuban-American community. Not a single Cuba-related question was posed during the Republican presidential debate in early August.
These recent political and economic changes did not unfold in a vacuum confined to Washington and Havana. They were influenced by individuals, but driven by a set of global shifts beyond the reach of individual activists, leaders, or even governments. The passions of the Cold War have evaporated in the U.S. and Latin America, and the ideologues of the Cuban exile community in the U.S. are aging out of political activism. Latin America’s so-called Pink Tide has called some political orthodoxies forged during the Cold War and enacted in Cuba into fundamental question. Recent spikes in Chinese capital in Latin America have generated concern over U.S. regional competitiveness. The Venezuelan oil crisis left Cuba without a regional patron. The growth of social media opened new modes of communication and critique for Cuba’s millennial generation. Leadership changes in Washington, Havana, and the Vatican opened the door for new political possibilities.
These forces paved the way for the current political and economic opening, but they did not guarantee the transition would unfold as smoothly as it has. In fact, it’s remarkable that a relationship mired in over 50 years of bitter claims, counterclaims, and backbiting has been reset through such a well calibrated and executed diplomatic process.
How do we account for such a smooth transition? Notwithstanding the large-scale factors mentioned above, it is at least in part a testament to the familiarity between the U.S. and Cuba that persisted amid decades of political hostility and economic separation. Cubans are as eager to visit the U.S. as they’ve ever been. And as the trade horizon draws ever closer and U.S. tourists clamor to visit Cuba “before it changes” or “after it changes,” that deep connection is being made visible with a vengeance.
As the U.S-Cuba relationship begins its first year of normalized diplomatic relations since the early 1960s, the U.S. trade embargo’s expiration date and the prospect of democratic reform will enter more sharply into view. This is especially the case given that Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba, the U.S., and the United Nations General Assembly this September. As the first Latin American pontiff, Francis understands better than most how hostility between the U.S. and Cuba has been a thorn in the hemisphere’s side throughout the Cold War and beyond. His secret brokering of bilateral negotiations in early 2014 laid the groundwork for détente, and his impending visit to both sides of the Florida Straits is likely to grant new momentum to the cause of meaningful reconciliation.
Diplomats dominated the last nine months of U.S.-Cuba relations, and authored a dramatic chapter in bilateral ties. Now that diplomatic relations are restored, a new group of actors will play an increasingly significant role in the process. The arrival of the first Latin American pope on Cuban and U.S. soil will conclude the first phase of reconciliation and begin a new project driven less by officials and more by citizens from both countries. Reconciliation is shifting course this fall, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Lawrence Gutman has conducted research on governance and foreign investment in Cuba as a Fulbright Hays Fellow and Tinker Foundation Fellow. He holds an M.A. in Latin American history from the University of Texas at Austin, and is based in New York. He tweets @lawrencegutman.
[Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson]