On Cuba, Obama Goes Long and Castro Holds On

It’s hard to overstate the sense of relief and joy that was felt in both Washington and Havana as Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously announced a breakthrough in their two countries’ long-running hostilities. There was, of course, much anger and hand-wringing as well and a host of questions about what happens next. But it’s worth taking a moment to understand how both sides got to this point and why it portends a major shift in U.S. foreign policy and potentially, in Cuban society.

Obama’s First-Term Steps on Cuba

Barack Obama came into office in 2009 determined to fulfill his campaign promise to ease what was seen as an increasingly ineffective embargo on Cuba. He quickly restored the Clinton-era rules on facilitating travel and remittances and added some minor provisions to incentivize U.S. telecommunications investment. The essential elements of the most comprehensive U.S. embargo on any country in the word, however, remained in place. Congress, led by a small group of Cuban-American members, kept a close and critical eye on any wobbling in the five-decade long policy of isolation and punishment and continued to allocate up to $20 million a year to promote democracy and human rights on the island. Then, the White House sat back and watched the ripple effects unfold.

Without a doubt, the measures to unlock the pent-up demand for Cuban-Americans to visit and support their relatives in Cuba had a salutary effect on both sides. For the exile community, it renewed ties to family in tangible ways and weakened the older generation’s rejection of any contact with communist Cuba. It exposed the generational fault lines with the Cuban-American community as newer arrivals took advantage of the relaxed rules to travel back home armed with money and goods, estimated in the billions. More Cuban-Americans started voting for Obama, who successfully issued a veto threat against a Florida congressional attempt to roll back the measures. High-level visits by American business, congressional, religious and academic and media figures took off. Minds started to change in meaningful ways.

Economic Reform in Cuba

For Cuba, Obama’s first-term steps were an economic lifeline for its struggling economy. In 2008, Raúl Castro oversaw the design of a significant series of economic reforms that sought to preserve socialism while introducing new forms of market-based mechanisms. The government began granting permission to open small businesses, to buy and sell property and cars (90 percent of Cubans own their homes), to own cell phones and to form cooperatives both on and off the farm. Money from the Cuban diaspora not only helped average Cubans cope with the fraying social safety net but also helped open new businesses and renovate property. The regime realized that its survival depended on generating diversified economic growth, not on subsidized handouts from Venezuela and its allies. It began to diversify its economic relations, drilling (unsuccessfully) for offshore oil, and opening the door to foreign investment, aided largely by Brazil’s decision to help underwrite development of a modern port and special trade zone in Mariel. Once the launch pad for thousands of Cuban rafters fleeing economic collapse, Mariel would become a hub of regional trade and good jobs. Thousands of foreign investors started taking a second look, though progress toward signing concrete deals remains disappointingly slow.

Alan Gross is Arrested, U.S.-Cuba Relations Suffer

Along the way, however, things got complicated. The November 2009 arrest of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor charged with helping the island’s small Jewish community by installing advanced telecommunications equipment to evade Cuban censors, was met with an immediate freeze in improving relations. Hopeful signs of a U.S.-Cuba rapprochement turned from yellow to red as the regime change demands of U.S. law returned as the primary focal point. Cuba’s continued (though unreasonable) place on the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list meant it got swept up in the intensifying enforcement of financial sanctions against Iran, Syria and Russia and more and more banks were unwilling to do any business with Cuba. Burgeoning U.S.-Cuba cooperation on matters of national interest to both sides—migration, counternarcotics, energy and the environment—slowed down dramatically while the two sides fought over how to reconcile the White House’s demands for Gross’ return with Cuban requirements to release five Cuban agents arrested in 1998 for spying. Meanwhile, international opinion grew increasingly critical of Washington’s anachronistic approach to Cuba: the region’s decision to skip the next Summit of the Americas unless Cuba was invited only added to the pressure.

Presidential Diplomacy and Coalition Politics Lead to Breakthrough

As we know now, U.S. and Cuban negotiators had been secretly meeting for months to come up with a solution. Many analysts who gathered in Havana last week for an annual conference on U.S.-Cuba relations, myself included, predicted an incremental package of steps the president would take by January to restart the process of rapprochement begun in 2009 while talks to return Gross continued. No one predicted the bold stroke that occurred on December 17. It had all the ingredients of a dramatic, creative and history-making moment that sweeps away outdated and failed thinking in one fell swoop. It was presidential diplomacy and coalition politics at its best.

Those ingredients include:

  • growing attention by Congress, the Jewish community and the media to bring Alan Gross home, with direct intercessions in Havana;
  • direct involvement by top leaders of the Catholic Church in both countries to negotiate a deal, including an important meeting in the Vatican with Pope Francis and President Obama;
  • the release of Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds, plus a critically important swap of spies for spies on a parallel track;
  • the growing recognition by the U.S. government that its ham-handed approach to democracy promotion on the island was counterproductive and excessively risky;
  • Cuba’s growing need to preserve “sustainable socialism” by improving economic relations with the United States in light of Venezuela’s collapsing economy;
  • Europe’s move toward rapprochement with Havana, and the desire by American businesses to not be left out of Cuba’s transformation;
  • the shift of opinion in the Cuban-American community toward engagement and away from punitive sanctions;
  • the influence of a diverse coalition of U.S. interest groups – business, religious, academics, farmers, human rights NGOs—aligned in favor of change in U.S. policy toward Cuba;
  • the president’s desire to leave a legacy of change during his remaining two years in office and, with Hilary Clinton’s endorsement, to remove a contentious issue from his successor’s campaign for the White House;
  • Raúl Castro’s ability to override the anti-U.S. hardliners in his own government, thereby paving the way, in theory, for the next generation to maintain control while allowing some change on the margins.

The head-snapping confluence of events on December 17—the simultaneous presidential announcements and returning flights home of prized Americans and Cubans; the holiday season celebration of loss and redemption and hope in the Jewish, Catholic and Afro-Cuban traditions; and the powerful language employed by President Obama in particular—make this a watershed moment in U.S. foreign policy. It marks the beginning of the end of five decades of hostility between two proud neighbors with distinct systems of governance. It symbolizes the end of the Cold War just as tremors of a new cold war between Washington and Moscow are growing. It signifies a reset in U.S.-Latin American relations on the eve of an unprecedented summit meeting of all the region’s leaders. It recognizes the failure of comprehensive punitive sanctions against a general population in favor of targeted sanctions for specific transgressions, as recently adopted in the case of Venezuela. It underscores that democratic change cannot be imposed by external coercion but only by supporting indigenous citizen movements willing to take the difficult and brave steps to demand it themselves. It declares the end of the strangle-hold of a minority faction of Cuban-American hardliners on an important foreign policy issue that affects all Americans. And most importantly, it restores hope on both sides of the Florida straits that change will continue, as it must, to improve the livelihoods and rights of millions of citizens in both countries. It was the big enchilada.