It seems like ages ago that Americans spent 13 days wondering if we were on the brink of nuclear war as the Soviet Union and Cuban government engaged the Kennedy Administration in the tumultuous Cuban Missile Crisis. Or even longer ago when American CIA agents stormed the shores of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in a failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government. Cuba’s allegiance to the Soviets and their admiration for communism encouraged the US to go on the defense and place a trade embargo and severed diplomatic relations with our neighbors 90 miles to the south.
But the days of communist threats have waned and the botched events of the early 1960s are long gone. In fact these events occurred 53 years ago.
There have been 11 US presidents and Fidel Castro has not been president for six years. So how is it possible that over all of this time nothing has changed? How is it possible that the US still has this bizarre arrangement that considers Cuba’s communist government a threat?
Obama’s Proactive Cuban Policy
Since President Obama took office in 2009, he has taken steps to reform US policy toward Cuba with the hopes of easing tension. Compared to his predecessor George W. Bush, who enforced the trade embargo and restricted travel to the country, Obama has been soft on Cuba.
The Obama Administration has allowed increased travel to Cuba for educational and religious purposes, and he has restored and improved the sending of remittances to family and non-family members still living in Cuba. On top of that, the Administration cleared the way for communication companies to establish networks abroad. These are small steps to bring more access to the small island nation, but are big steps compared to the lack of cooperation in previous years.
With changes in place, it does seem as if the US is warming up to the idea of a friendly relationship with Cuba. In fact, recent polls show that there is a growing number of Americans, 50 to 60 percent, who favor opening the door to Cuba. When you look to the global stage there is an overwhelming call for the US and Cuba to normalize their relationship. The United Nations voted last October for the 22nd year in a row to condemn the US embargo on Cuba with 188 countries in favor of the resolution and only the United States and Israel voting against.
Cuba’s New Direction
After decades of a dragging economy that found little success in communism, Cuba’s new president Raúl Castro has begun to create more economic opportunities for Cuba and its people. Previously Cuba relied on a State run economy, but Castro has slowly begun to give back previously nationalized portions of the economy. For example, agriculture and real estate are now seeing liberalizing reforms and small businesses have fewer restrictions, allowing the country to provide more services to its citizen and grow employment in the private sector to 20 percent of the country’s workforce.
Castro has also brought the Internet and cell phones to his people, and has eased restrictions on receiving permission to travel outside of the country.
In November 2013, Obama commented on the progress on the island, agreeing that change was occurring and calling for “creative and thoughtful” US-Cuba policy. In addition, Secretary of State John Kerry has long been vocal about lifting the embargo with Cuba all together and allowing the free-flow of travel for American citizens. With the President and the top ranking US diplomat open to a relationship with Cuba and the Cuban government looking beyond communism, there exists an opportunity for change.
However, with 53 years of unfriendly relations, there are bound to be a few roadblocks stopping progress. For instance, with ties severed from the US, Cuba sought to find friendship in partners opposed to the capitalistic American society. Cuba has developed a relationship with China and Venezuela, who are not exactly the US’s greatest allies. The countries have established deep economic roots with one another and work together to cultivate an anti-capitalism rhetoric.
In addition, the arrests of citizens in each other’s countries have fired up tension, making discussion difficult. Both the arrest of Cuban nationals in the US and the arrest of an USAID worker in Cuba have angered both parties, putting unneeded stress on furthering policy discussions.
Of course, the most infamous reason the US has not pursued a more open relationship with Cuba is the large population of Cuban Americans living in Florida, who typically influence policy on the issue. With the fear of losing this important voting block, both Republicans and Democrats are wary of changing policy until the communist government is removed in Cuba. However, 50 percent of Cuban Americans voted for Obama in the 2012 election, showing a shift in attitude on lifting the embargo.
With so much pushing the two countries toward an open relationship, it would be careless to squander away the opportunity over 53-year-old problems. As the international community continues to encourage both countries to find change and both the US and Cuba take steps to open access to their respective countries, the time for reform is now.
Neither country can afford to be entangled in ineffective policy that hampers economic growth and keeps Cuba from growing into a more independent and democratic country.