After the Thaw: What’s Next in U.S.-Cuba Relations?

The opening of U.S. diplomatic ties with Cuba will bring real change to the island and raise Washington’s stature in the region, says CFR’s Julia Sweig.

December 19, 2014

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The announcement that the United States and Cuba will open diplomatic ties for the first time in fifty-three years has been met with relief, anger, and questions on both sides. The policy shift comes at a time of growing consensus in the United States that a new approach is in order, says CFR Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies Julia E. Sweig, who believes U.S. engagement with Cuba will bring  reform to the island in the long term. "It will be very hard to keep the lid on the population’s interest in dynamically participating in political debate and seeing themselves as citizens of the globe, not just of one island," says Sweig.

A man sits at his home watching Cuba’s President Raul Castro speak during a television broadcast in Havana December 17, 2014. (Photo: Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)
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Reestablishing diplomatic ties could be seen as risky for both sides, especially on the U.S. political front. Why were Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro willing to take this risk now?

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In both cases the risks are far outweighed by the rewards. In the United States, the opportunity for President Obama to seize upon this issue and turn it into one of his major foreign policy legacies is significant. [It not only writes] a new chapter after fifty years of stasis in the U.S.-Cuban relationship, but more broadly allows the United States to restart a conversation and rebuild its standing in Latin America.

The domestic politics in the United States are such that Obama has an opportunity. The Cuban-American community is not a monolith: Obama won [the Cuban-American] vote in the state of Florida in the 2012 elections.

"There is a near-unanimous consensus in the United States—in the private sector, editorial opinion, cultural sectors, and educational institutions—that it’s time to move on and approach Cuba differently."

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There is a near unanimous consensus in the United States—in the private sector, editorial opinion, cultural sectors, and educational institutions—that it’s time to move on and approach Cuba differently.  The president regards that as far more significant than the voices of the serious opposition, which still exist, but whose own constituents are now traveling and sending remittances to their families in Cuba.

In Cuba, Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018 and has designated his successor, [Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel]. He has consolidated his political power and has launched his slow, but modestly effective, set of economic and political reforms. For those reforms to accelerate, the calculus is that putting the relationship with the United States on better footing and bringing in American capital, technology, and know-how is in the national interest. This is especially promising  given the proximity of the markets and the geographical and historical closeness of the two societies, and given dropping oil prices and uncertainty in Venezuela.

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This move, as we’re already seeing, is very popular domestically in Cuba—not only because of the economic and diplomatic openings but because the "heros," the [three still-imprisoned members of the] Cuban Five [intelligence officers arrested in the United States in 1998]; were brought home. Theirs had been a nationalist cause célèbre in Cuba for many years.

Was Cuba’s younger generation of leaders involved in this process of rapprochement?

Not that I’m aware of. This is the single most important diplomatic, geopolitical move that the Castro government has made in fifty years—perhaps since 1962, when it accepted nuclear missles from the Soviet Union. Some of the negotiators, strategists, diplomats, and [technocrats] involved might be of a younger generation, but the political decision to move forward, and to see Obama as the best possible American partner that the Cubans could expect for some time, was taken at the highest levels, I’m sure with the endorsement of the younger generation. But this was a Castro event.

How do you see things changing in Cuba in the coming months and years?

The implementation of the new economic openings to the United States is going to take some time. Various agencies will have to write and roll out regulations, which means bureaucracy and at least some politics. The assistant U.S. secretary of state for Latin America, [Roberta S. Jacobson], is leading a delegation to Cuba in January for immigration talks and to further the discussion about diplomatic relations.

[The opening of relations] is giving the Cuban population a sense that their future won’t be one of constant mobilization and tension with the United States, but rather  one of opportunities to freely pursue the cultural and family ties that have always existed. Economic ties can now be more dominant than the national-security conflict of the last half century.

Five, ten years down the road, if the economic openings are to deepen, then we’ll see Cuba become downright boring. That is, it’ll be a struggling, developing economy, with a highly trained, educated class of young people. Some of them will have left, some might return home and try to make good on their futures in Cuba. This is part of what I see as the slow molting of Cuban society from the communist Cuban society of the last thirty or forty years to one that is becoming a more open, porous society that is less on edge.

Despite the restoration of diplomatic ties, the embargo remains in place for now. Do you think the U.S. Congress is likely to end Helms-Burton, the law that prohibits most trade with Cuba?

Once the steps the president announced Wednesday are implemented, they will create their own political momentum—in the United States, in Cuba itself, but also in the U.S. Congress. Legislation that might unpack, piece by piece, Helms-Burton would be the logical result of that, but I don’t see that happening in the short term.

I see the president’s executive authority around trade, investment, banking, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and travel creating a political dynamic that would ultimately shift opinion inside Congress to eventually repeal, or no longer enforce, Helms-Burton. But not in the immediate term.

The Obama administration says it hopes to influence Cuba’s stance on democracy, free speech, and human rights through direct diplomacy and exchange. Do you think this new strategy will be more effective?

Yes. The best way to promote human rights and democracy and open society is through engagement. Of course, there’s the argument that we [engage] with China and they don’t have a more open society. But there are eleven million Cubans there and two million people of Cuban descent in the United States—we are so close to one another. Although there is very limited Internet access now, part of this [diplomatic] package is a commitment for access to grow. From my experience, it will be very hard to keep the lid on the population’s interest in dynamically participating in political debate and seeing themselves as citizens of the globe, not just of one island.

That said, I don’t think we’re going to see multiparty elections the day after tomorrow, or even next year—although I could be wrong. Things move slowly in Cuba. But part of the deal involves not only releasing Alan Gross, but also fifty-three political prisoners. That’s an improvement in human rights.

What impact could this policy shift have on U.S. relations in Latin America?

The unresolved issue of the U.S. relationship with Cuba is a huge symbolic problem and it stands in the way of the United States being able to regain its standing with a region that looks nothing like it did in 1959, when the revolution took power, but also nothing like it did when the Cold War ended. Putting the Cuba issue to rest, demonstrating the substance behind Obama’s rhetoric around partnership, and recognizing that the door to a new relationship with Latin America goes through Havana is very powerful.

I think we’ll see the benefits of that at the Summit of the Americas in April. As a result of this move, Obama can go, Raul Castro will go, and they can have a conversation on democracy and human rights that would not otherwise have been possible.

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