Voice from America

Obama’s Rapprochement with Cuba

05 Jan, 2015    ·   4795

Prof Amit Gupta looks at the possible consequences of a transformed bilateral relationship

Amit Gupta
Amit Gupta
Visiting Fellow

For the first six years of his presidency President Obama played nice with the Republicans in the hope that they would enact significant domestic policy reforms. Instead, he was met with obstruction and efforts to derail his most significant domestic achievement - the Affordable Care Act. Since the 2014 midterms the President has done what all his predecessors did when faced with domestic roadblocks - he has moved to try and conduct major changes in foreign policy. His administration has worked out a climate change deal with China and both countries have lowered tensions in the relationship. A food security deal has been struck with India thus paving the way for significant advances in the World Trade Organisation but the most interesting redefinition of US foreign policy has been the rapprochement with Cuba. After extensive and secret negotiations the US has decided to scrap the fifty year old policy of not engaging with Cuba and instead establish full diplomatic relations. Greater trade, investment, and increased flows of money from the Cuban diaspora in America to their relatives back home are expected to result from this policy shift.  Tourism has yet to be permitted but it is almost inevitable.

For over fifty years America’s Cuba policy has been held hostage by a vocal and politically active Cuban diaspora, conservatives who revile the Castro brothers as the last bastion of Communism in the western hemisphere, and by foreign policy and national security bureaucrats in Washington DC who have either built their careers on the Cuban embargo or just have long institutional memories. President Obama has correctly pronounced the policy a failure and, instead, sought to engage the Cuban government in a dialogue that will lead to a comprehensive transformation of the currently adversarial relationship. 

Opposition to the resumption of relations comes primarily from the Cuban-American community and the conservatives in the American political system.  Conservatives could have changed this policy a decade ago with little electoral blowback since the Cuban-American community has never been particularly fond of the Democrats because the die-hard Cuban nationalists still blame John F Kennedy for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion.

Further, the Cuban-Americans played a critical role in the electoral politics of Florida and were thus courted by both political parties in the US. But attitudes within the Cuban American community are changing and, at the same time, their political clout in Florida politics is diminishing as other Latino groups (who have a different political agenda) are surpassing the Cuban community in numbers. Moreover, the business opportunities that will come from opening up the island are going to be too hard for American corporations to resist. 

Cuba has high literacy rates and a trained work force that could work effectively if manufacturing is moved to that country. Its medical community can provide the type of care that makes medical tourism to the island an attractive possibility and there is great potential for American hotel groups that want to invest in the country’s tourist industry which at present is dominated by European companies. 

Additionally, members of the Cuban American diaspora have traditionally gone to Cuba from Mexico, Canada, and Jamaica but this is an unnecessarily arduous journey. Direct flights from the US would benefit both countries. 

Perhaps the biggest change is the one that President Obama is suggesting will happen. With greater interaction between the Cuban people and the US we are likely to see the push for increased liberalisation and democracy the lack of which being the very criteria on which sanctions were imposed in the 1960s. 

A Republican-led Congress, however, is going to make it difficult for the Obama Administration to move forward easily on rebuilding the relationship. There is already talk of not funding some of the President’s initiatives including paying for an embassy in Havana. What obstructionist and myopic Congressmen need to understand is that as Yitzhak Rabin put it: "You don’t need to talk to make peace with your friends. You need to make peace with your enemies.” Wise words.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.