Diplomatic Shock and Awe: Obama Elates Cubans

I had the very good fortune to be participating in a conference on U.S.-Cuba relations at the Cuban diplomatic academy when this past Wednesday Presidents Barack Obama and Ra­úl Castro announced—in simultaneous televised speeches—the historic shift toward normalizing relations.

Rumors had been circulating of a possible spy swap—jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross for three Cuban spies languishing in U.S. jails. At the conference, U.S. experts split between “pessimists” who doubted the rumors and “optimists” who predicted a Christmas surprise. A few even suggested that Obama might accompany the spy swap with a package of economic measures poking holes in the comprehensive U.S. economic embargo.

But none predicted the imminent establishment of diplomatic ties, the mutual opening of embassies, the full-throated reframing of relations replacing decades of mutual hostility with positive engagement. Obama announced that U.S. citizens will be able to travel to Cuba with far fewer restrictions and return with up to $400 in purchases—including up to $100 in Cuban cigars and rum! U.S. firms will supply Cuba with telecommunications and Internet capabilities, and engage in commerce with Cuba’s emerging private sector.

The White House had managed a very close hold on the policy shift. State Department bureaucrats had been kept in the dark, fearing leaks. At the Havana conference, the lead Cuban diplomat appeared unusually cheery—in retrospect, a tip-off of the impending policy shift—but did not show her hand.

Assessing the Reaction in Cuba

When Castro’s remarks were aired live at the conference, the Cubans gasped and applauded twice—first when their president, attired in his five-star military uniform, revealed the release of the three “hero” spies, and then cheered even louder when he announced the establishment of diplomatic relations. At the conclusion of the speech, the entire audience, their eyes wet with joyful tears, spontaneously stood and sang the national anthem.

One scholar reacted, “Finally, the long nightmare is over. A new chapter of history has opened.”

The streets of Havana quickly filled with crowds of celebrating students, marching loudly with Cuban flags. Ordinary Cubans walked with smiles on their faces, gathering in small groups to share the surprising news.

Since then, Cubans have been intensely debating the meaning of the policy shift. The vast majority praised the “bravery”—la valentía—of the two presidents—and wondered whether Obama would personally visit the island, where he would no doubt receive a hero’s welcome. Most Cubans assume that the relaxation of the embargo will result in a tangible improvement in their living standards.

As several economists quickly concluded, “Now we understand why the government has projected a robust growth rate for 2015!” In Havana, housing prices suddenly spiked. People speculated as to whether relaxed diplomatic relations would result in a rush of badly-needed foreign investment, in everything from energy to agriculture to consumer goods. Could Cuban hotels accommodate the surge in tourism?

At a conference of intellectuals, a leading publisher elicited cheers by proclaiming, “The best Christmas present will be wide access to the internet in 2015!” Today, Cuba has an Internet penetration of only about five percent—one of the lowest in the world.

“Finally, the long nightmare is over. A new chapter of history has opened.”

But some Cubans remained skeptical; after years of depressed economic conditions, they distrust politicians and have low expectations. Others adopted a milder “wait and see” attitude. Still others feared that recalcitrant Cuban-Americans in the U.S. Congress would block any relaxation of the economic embargo.

The political opposition quickly divided. Hard-line dissidents—reeling from the shock—insisted that nothing had changed, that Obama had gravely erred, in effect, recognizing the Castro dictatorship. Others embraced the policy shift as opening unexpected space for political action.

On the other end of the political spectrum, a few stalwarts criticized Castro for establishing relations without first demanding the full lifting of the economic embargo, a long-standing Cuban negotiating posture.

Focusing on Next Steps

The U.S. bureaucracy is now under pressure to transform Obama’s promises into deeds. The upcoming April Summit of the Americas in Panama sets a deadline for issuing the new regulations liberalizing travel and commerce. In a speech before the National Assembly on December 20, Castro announced that he would personally attend the Summit, where he would “express our positions with respect for all of the other heads of state.” So the Panama conclave will bring Obama and Castro face-to-face. They will want to be able to report real progress in warming relations and in improving the economic prospects of ordinary Cubans.

Already there is speculation that the Panama Summit will witness a second round of initiatives, fed by Obama’s pledge to discuss with Congress a formal and full lifting of economic sanctions.

Both governments have raised hopes. But the Cuban government, accustomed to operating in deep secrecy, will have to learn how to manage popular expectations in a more relaxed international environment—where the United States can no longer be blamed for its own economic mistakes. And if promises are kept, Cuba will finally enter a post-Cold War era where informed citizens have ready access to the Internet and a world of information.