from Asia Unbound

Is Myanmar the Model for Cuba’s Reforms?

Obama-Myanmar

March 9, 2016

Obama-Myanmar
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Over the past six months, the Obama White House has rapidly bolstered diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba. Last month, Washington and Havana signed a deal restoring commercial flights between the two countries for first time in over fifty years; the deal, one of many agreements recently reached, came at the same time as Washington allowed a U.S. factory to set up in Cuba. The outreach to the island is an attempt, according to deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, to ensure that the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement is nearly irreversible by the time that Obama leaves office. To further cement ties, Obama will visit Cuba later this month—making him the first U.S. president to do so since Calvin Coolidge.

Recently, White House officials also have begun mentioning a more specific template for this bilateral rapprochement, and for how Cuba might open up its economy and its political system: Myanmar. Since the first days of Obama’s first term, administration officials placed a priority on restoring closer U.S. ties with Myanmar. Myanmar was, at the time, isolated from the United States and most other democracies by decades of junta rule, destructive economic policies, and sanctions imposed after massive rights abuses by Myanmar’s leaders. The Obama administration believed that sanctions had failed to change the course of Myanmar politics, and that America’s inattention to the Southeast Asian country was making Myanmar a virtual Chinese client state. To reverse U.S. policy toward Myanmar, over the past seven years, the White House has indeed relaxed sanctions on the country, appointed ambassadorial level representation to Myanmar (the United States had an embassy in Myanmar, but it had been led by a charge d’affaires), launched new aid programs in Myanmar, and even considered restoring military ties down the road.

The Obama administration sees Myanmar as a success story, and one in which the United States played a major role in the transition. Now, it apparently sees U.S.-Myanmar relations as a model as well. As Hillary Clinton notes in her memoir Hard Choices, the administration believes that it played a central role in pushing the Myanmar generals to move toward elections, and that the rapprochement with Myanmar was an example of U.S. diplomacy and soft power at its finest.

A recent Washington Post article effectively summarized administration views on U.S.-Myanmar relations and how they could be a model for relations with Cuba. “There are important similarities” between the White House’s approach to Cuba and its approach toward Myanmar, the Post reported. U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told the Post that in both cases the White House was breaking from years of isolating these nations, and that the administration would set the foundations for a new relationship to be built over generations.

For more on how the U.S.-Myanmar relationship could---or could not---be a model for ties with Cuba, read my new article on World Politics Review.

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United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

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