Close But No Cigar
Ten years ago, hardly anyone would have been able to predict that a new era of relations between Cuba and the United States would start with Netflix. And yet, last month’s expansion of the American on-demand streaming service into Cuba signified the first step of a brighter future between two old North American rivals. For the better part of the 20th century, the bitterly strained relations between Cuba and the United States constituted the prime regional rivalry in North America. The December 2014 normalization of relations between the two nations looks to usher in a new age of economic and diplomatic prosperity. Despite receiving conservative backlash for his actions, Barack Obama, by reestablishing diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, has taken long overdue steps to bolster a potentially crucial regional ally.
Those familiar with the timeline of American history will be well aware of the supporting role Cuba has played in its course; even before either of the two nations were independent from their imperial counterparts, they had intertwined interests through colonial trade. Though the United States gained independence from British rule in 1776, Cuba still remained under the rule of Spain. As the early days of the American republic rolled on, leaders of the United States often considered the tiny island off the coast of Florida as a potential addition to the burgeoning union. Spanish influence in the Caribbean began to wane in the early 19th century, and the American government’s ties with Cuba grew stronger, at one point soaking up more than 80 percent of Cuban exports. Cuban rebels began to actively resist Spanish imperial rule, and the United States eventually intervened in Cuba’s War of Independence (known as the Spanish-American War in the United States) at the turn of the 19th century. Cuba became a fully independent nation after the United States lifted its imposed post-war military regime in 1902.
A long period of economic partnership continued to exist between the United States and Cuba into the 20th century, where the United States acted as Cuba’s chief trading partner for crops, especially sugar. Cuba would experience frequent periods of civil unrest, which the United States would never hesitate to help quell. After General Fulgencio Batista rose to power in 1933, the United States and Cuba enjoyed an age of close cooperation. Near the end of Batista’s reign, after the end of World War II, another rebellion emerged, led by a young charismatic revolutionary by the name of Fidel Castro. The United States chose not to assist the Batista regime, even going so far as to block weapon shipments to Batista forces. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially recognized Castro’s rebels in 1959 after they had conquered Batista and seized power in Cuba.
As a Marxist-Leninist and a fervent Cuban nationalist, Fidel Castro despised the perceived hegemonic shadow that he saw the United States cast over Cuba. Castro immediately began to nationalize Cuba and sever relations with the United States. Foreign assets were promptly seized, taxes were hiked on American imports, and trade deals with the Soviet Union were established. The United States noted the growing threat of Cuba “going red” and becoming a Soviet ally, and attempted to take swift action to counter the Castro regime. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy armed a brigade of CIA-backed Batista Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow the Castro regime. The infamous “Bay of Pigs” invasion failed as Castro squashed the American-backed rebels within three short days. Within days of the invasion, President Kennedy enacted an exhaustive economic embargo on Cuba, completely restricting travel and trade between the two nations. This embargo had devastating economic effects for Cuba, whose economy was still tightly linked to American interests. Normal citizens were now subject to a market dictated by the Castro regime, in which inflation skyrocketed and necessary goods were often scarce.
The defining moment of Cuban-American relations thus far occurred shortly after the imposition of President Kennedy’s embargo, when Cuba allowed the Soviet Union to build a nuclear missile base on the island in 1962. After the discovery of the base through US satellite photos, President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba. With the world on the brink of a nuclear war, the United States negotiated with the USSR to defuse the situation. After a tense thirteen-day stalemate, the United States agreed not to invade Cuba and to withdraw American nuclear missiles from military establishments in Europe if the Soviet Union would withdraw its base in Cuba.
The coming decades of Cuban-American relations were not defined by a singular event like the Cuban Missile Crisis, but a series of actions by the United States to welcome Cuban refugees who were fleeing the bleak economic conditions on the island. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allowed Cuban refugees to apply for US citizenship a year after arrival. Though the United States took active steps to welcome those fleeing Cuba with open arms, it also tightened the Cuban embargo through the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which stated in no uncertain terms that the embargo would not be slackened until Fidel Castro was removed from office and his totalitarian regime lifted on the island in favor of a free and democratic government. Under the administration of President Bill Clinton, five Cuban counterintelligence officers in the United States were charged with conspiracy and espionage after they were found to be agents of Castro. The “Cuban Five” remained in US custody until after 2010.
In 2008, Fidel Castro yielded to a long illness and retired from the presidency of Cuba, handing the reins over to his brother, Raúl Castro. President Barack Obama, seeking an opportunity to esae relations with Cuba, took action in 2009 to lift travel and money transfer restrictions for Cuban-Americans with valid purposes. Later in 2009, a US government subcontractor, Alan Gross, was arrested for the distribution of electronics and sentenced to fifteen years in Cuban internment.
President Obama did not stop at easing travel restrictions; truly seeking a new future for Cuban-American relations, Obama and Castro headed clandestine talks between US and Cuban officials for eighteen months, with negotiations taking place in Canada and Vatican City under the guidance of Pope Francis. On December 17, 2014, Presidents Obama and Castro announced the restoration of full diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba following the swap of Alan Gross and another US Intelligence Officer, and the remaining three incarcerated members of the Cuban Five.
And thus, with this recent normalization, the United States and Cuba have ended a half-century of latent (and at times direct) hostility. Now that diplomatic relations have been restored, the United States must look towards a future of cultural, political, and economic coexistence with the existing Castro regime, which, though not as extreme as Fidel’s, remains a communist regime.
Transitioning the United States Interests Section in Havana, currently administered by the Swiss government, back into an American embassy would show confidence in the newfound diplomatic relationship between the United States and Cuba, but there is perhaps another action that can be taken by the United States to show a true promise of partnership to Cuba: forfeiting control of Guantánamo Bay and the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp. The United States originally occupied Guantánamo Bay during the Cuban War of Independence, and retained control over the Bay through a clause in the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903, whilst admitting Cuba’s ultimate sovereignty over the area. Cubans have detested American presence in Guantánamo Bay and see the United States’ continued control of the area as a direct violation of national sovereignty. Barack Obama promised during his 2008 election for the presidency that he would shut down the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp – by doing so now, he can still fulfill one of his original campaign promises while illustrating to Cuba a profound American respect for Cuban sovereignty.
The cogs are in motion for a complete restoration of a public relationship between Cuba and the United States, which will surely complement the promise of a renewed economic relationship in North America. American businesses are finally free of penalization from expanding into Cuba–Netflix’s move into Cuba did not represent so much a wise business move (it is estimated that only 5% of Cubans have access to broadband internet) as a sign of things to come.
The United States must build on the momentum of normalization and work towards a complete lift of its half-century embargo of Cuba. Cuban economists estimate that the embargo has resulted in a loss of approximately $1.126 trillion over the last fifty years, a staggering economic loss that has drastically lowered the quality of living for Cubans and the Cuban diaspora alike. President Obama, despite his successes with normalization, cannot end the embargo without an act of Congress, and therefore must rally the majority Republican Congress to pass bills to lift all travel restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba as well as to lift the embargo.
The Cuban embargo represents an outdated policy still clinging to the fringes of the long-ended Cold War. Its continued existence is a violation of the inherent American principle of free enterprise, and the American government’s interference in the method of free enterprise is downright hypocritical to American values. Both the United States and Cuba stand to benefit greatly from the restoration of diplomatic relations and enhanced channels of trade. In the embargo era, China has replaced the United States as Cuba’s top trading partner, now responsible for 18 percent of Cuban imports and 30 percent of Cuban exports – by ending the embargo, not only will the United States restore a historically effective trading partner, but will also renew a North American diplomatic bloc in the face of a shifting network of power relationships by potentially displacing China as Cuba’s chief economic partner.
Though the future looks brighter for Cuban-American relations than ever before, there is still much work to be done to fully realize the potential of a new North American partnership. The Obama administration leapfrogged the partnership forward, and Netflix has taken a small baby step. What remains to be seen is how large the leap the US Congress is willing to take in order to truly bring an end to the most tense North American rivalry of the 20th century. •