How Obama and Castro changed history: A brief look at US-Cuba relations



The relationship between America and Cuba has undergone a radical shift in the last five months. Since December, the western hemisphere has witnessed an unprecedented realignment in U.S.-Cuba relations but a great deal of uncertainty still remains in the air.
It began on Dec. 17, 2014 when President Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro announced that the countries would seek to end decades of severed ties and work towards normalizing relations. American prisoner Alan Gross was released by Cuba, and the U.S. said it would review Cuba’s status as a terrorist state.
Prior to 1959, life on the Caribbean island was precarious under the authoritarian regime of Fulgencio Batista. Incredibly corrupt, Batista had suspended the Cuban constitution and deprived citizens of most political liberties. He also forged alliances with important organized crime groups and encouraged the domination of American companies over the Cuban economy.
The Cuban capital Havana had become a burgeoning center of luxury and entertainment, lined with casinos and grandiose hotels. Some 300,000 American tourists visited the city in 1958, and it is even estimated to have been more financially successful than Las Vegas.
This all changed when Fidel Castro’s armed revolt succeeded in 1959. Castro quickly aligned himself with Marxist-Leninist principles and saw the widespread nationalization of business and property, some of which had been American-owned.
The United States responded by imposing a trade embargo that would stunt relations between the two nations for decades. The final nail in the coffin between the two countries was the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s. President Obama is now seeking to end this mistrust and end what he calls an ‘outdated approach’.
The recent shift in U.S.-Cuba relations has nonetheless produced a number of issues that need to be taken into consideration. Although both nations wish to restore diplomatic ties, there still exists a clear ideological barrier that will have to be overcome either through compromise or more unlikely, radical political realignment.
The issue was brought up most notably this past January when the United States clarified its stance on Cuba’s human rights violations.
The U.S. flatly stated it would not cease providing support for political dissidents in Cuba, most of whom have experienced gross persecution by the government. It was also reiterated by top U.S.-Latin America official Roberta Jacobson that the reopening of an embassy in Cuba would only occur if Cuba improved its human rights record.
However, it appears as if the administration has retreated altogether from these statements, with the president announcing plans to open a U.S. embassy in Havana by mid-April. The embassy would, according to the president, lay the initial groundwork for normalizing relations and continue to encourage democratic values in the Communist nation. He also claimed that Cuba has already begun discussing ways in which to reorganize their economy by allowing in foreign investment.
“We need to try something new that encourages and ultimately I think forces the Cuban government to engage in a modern economy. And that will create more space for freedom for the Cuban people,” said Obama.
A number of changes have already occurred as a result of efforts to normalize relations. A travel ban that had barred Americans from entering into Cuba has been partially lifted, allowing family members and those with a specific reason to travel temporarily to the country. This is expected to eventually extend to all people, including those wishing to travel to Cuba as tourists.
With the opening up of Cuba to American travellers, the island will no doubt experience a boom in tourism that will benefit the economy and increase its wealth. Indeed, tourism stands as one of the top three contributors to Cuba’s economy and its employees have some of the highest incomes in the country. There have already been small airlines, that have started providing service to the island from the United States, such as one Miami-based company that is now flying weekly from Key West to Havana.
Other U.S. companies have also started to slowly penetrate the Cuban economy such as Netflix, Mastercard and American Express. The trade embargo, however, will still need the approval of a Republican-led Congress, and Obama has plans to bring the issue before the House of Representatives sometime in the near future.
For now it is uncertain how successful the U.S. will be in normalizing relations with communist Cuba. There are still many strides that need to be made in terms of compromise and dialogue.
That being said there is nonetheless a strong want on both sides to end the decades of mistrust that has characterized relations between the two countries.
The question remains whether or not Cuba will stand its ground and remain true to its Marxist-Leninist beliefs or whether the prospect of support from the United States will prove too tempting.

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