By Lawrence Gutman
Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro met at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, and the first stage of reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba came to an end. After a flurry of historic developments last week that included visits to both countries and addresses by Pope Francis, Obama, and Castro in New York, momentum for restored trade continues to build and the U.S. trade embargo is more vulnerable than ever before.
On Sept. 18, the day before Pope Francis’s arrival at José Martí International Airport, the White House announced that restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba, initially relaxed in January following the announcement of bilateral talks, have been significantly rolled back. Limits on financial remittances to the island have been lifted completely, U.S. citizens can now open bank accounts in Cuba, U.S. businesses can establish Cuban offices and subsidiaries, and U.S. telecom services can now offer services across the Florida Straits.
These measures reflect the Administration’s view that democratization in Cuba will flow from economic development and regional integration, a position that contradicts the logic of the fifty-four year old trade embargo. They also underscore the administration’s view that, absent the embargo’s near-term repeal by Congress, presidential action is the most effective catalyst of reform in Cuba that can be leveraged from abroad. As Treasury Secretary Jack Lew stated regarding the new rules, “[T]he U.S. is helping to support the Cuban people in their effort to achieve the political and economic freedom necessary to build a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.”
It goes without saying that these measures were timed to coincide with the three-day papal trip to Cuba, and to seize on the global attention it drew to build momentum for further engagement. Pope Francis’s itinerary was officially intended to broaden and strengthen the Catholic Church in Cuba, but the visit underscored the roles of the pontiff and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega in brokering détente between the two estranged neighbors.
An array of regional and global factors, including Venezuela’s decline as Cuba’s economic patron, U.S. ambitions to counteract Chinese investment in Latin America, and falling domestic support for the U.S. embargo certainly shaped the contours of reconciliation. But the Vatican’s engagement played a key role in enabling a smooth diplomatic process. As the first Pope from the New World, Francis orchestrated the greatest achievement in Western hemispheric relations of the 21st century thus far.
Expectations that the Pope would avoid the topic of U.S.-Cuban relations during his time on the island were dashed immediately upon his arrival. Standing on the airport tarmac before a welcoming audience, Francis praised, “an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement.“
At Sunday’s mass on the Plaza of the Revolution, he challenged the ideological rigidity of the Cuban state, declaring, “we do not serve ideas, we serve people.” Raúl Castro has expressed remarkable openness to the Catholic Church over the past year, and a banner of Jesus Christ bearing the words Vengan a mi (Come to me) adorned the Plaza of the Revolution during the papal mass. Pope Francis avoided specific comments on policy in favor of more pastoral pronouncements, but the policy implications of his visit were unmistakable.
On Monday, President Obama seized on the Pope’s favorable reception in Cuba to advocate for bilateral trade at the United Nations. He reiterated his administration’s view that the embargo has failed to advance the rights agenda on the island, and affirmed his commitment to promoting diplomacy, commerce, and individual exchanges through executive action. The President received a rousing, if predictable, ovation from the U.N. delegates for his statement, “I’m confident that our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore.”
Castro followed Obama’s address by lauding the restoration of diplomatic ties and the “heroic and selfless resistance” of the Cuban people. As expected, he demanded that the U.S. return the Guantanamo Bay naval base to Cuban hands, compensate Cuba for a half-century of economic sanctions, and suspend “subversive and destabilizing activities” to undermine the Cuban state.
Yet the Cuban President largely avoided the bombastic, attention-grabbing language that has characterized prior Cuban addresses before the General Assembly. The fate of Guantanamo and the legacy of the embargo, as well as claims on properties expropriated by the Cuban government during the 1960s, will surely be contentious topics moving forward. But Castro’s reluctance to forcefully rebuke Washington and ruffle feathers on Capitol Hill reflects a significant tonal shift and a recognition that times have changed.
This recognition was front and center when Obama and Castro met on the sidelines of the Assembly with their senior diplomatic staffs. All things considered, their interactions were genial and relaxed. Castro reiterated his pre-requisites for reconciliation, and the two leaders presumably discussed the ongoing diplomatic agenda and the visit of U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to Havana next week.
The past week’s events cap a historic nine-month period of diplomacy across the Florida Straits. The ideological hostility that has defined U.S.-Cuban relations since the dawn of the 1960s is dissipating, and the U.S. trade embargo remains the last institutional obstacle to restored ties. Yet despite the genuine momentum created over the last year, repeal is hardly a sure thing in the near term. The U.S. and Cuba may be poised to begin a new era of political and economic engagement, but the question of how long it will take the U.S. Congress to make that era a reality will be the focal point of reconciliation’s next – and hopefully final – phase.
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 by Calixto N. Llanes]