Sunday, December 28, 2014

The un-revolutionary mending of US-Cuba relations

David Roberts

By David Roberts

The recently announced thaw in US-Cuba relations is a boon to all Latin America and to the region's ties with Washington. The issue of US sanctions against Cuba has dogged relations between Latin America and the US for decades, with even the more liberal, pro-market countries in the region calling for the embargo to be lifted.

Some have speculated that Venezuela, Cuba's closest ally in the region, will now be isolated as Havana looks more to the US, leaving Caracas as something of a lone wolf in its ranting and raving against Washington. That appears to be wishful thinking. Cuba and the US are not suddenly going to become the best of chums.

The decision to restore full diplomatic ties and loosen the economic and travel restrictions (including the ability of US citizens to travel to Cuba, a restriction that smacks of a totalitarian state) is highly significant, even historic as Barack Obama put it. But major change is not going to come overnight, and the likes of McDonalds and Starbucks are not suddenly going to pop up in Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

For a start, the US already has a large diplomatic mission in the Cuban capital, and economic restrictions have been partially lifted in recent years, while Cuba itself has been undergoing a process of gradual and very partial economic liberalization. What is more, to end the embargo altogether will require the approval of the US congress, where the Republicans will now control both houses and will surely not vote in favor.

But the hope and expectation is that, as relations improve during the last two years of the Obama administration, support for the embargo will fade with the benefits of closer political and economic ties becoming evident, and whoever succeeds him will have the backing to end the patently ineffective embargo. That, in turn, would mean the Cuban regime would no longer have an excuse – as the embargo has been for the last 50 years – for stifling democratic change and using it as a scapegoat (with some justification) for the country's economic woes.

At the same time, scrapping the embargo would be good for business in the US and elsewhere – given the dire economic straits that Cuba's oil benefactor Venezuela is in, and with crude prices in freefall, shouldn't US companies help Cuba develop its own hydrocarbon resources?

Finally, and almost as an aside, a big unknown in all this is the role of Fidel Castro. Did he approve of the secret talks with Washington and the agreement between his brother Raúl and Obama? Was he involved in the process? Could the agreement have been reached if he were still in charge? We've heard nothing from Fidel so far.

Whatever the case, many have said that real change could not happen in Cuba while the Castro brothers are still alive. It seems those people could, thankfully, be proved wrong, and that would be of benefit to the whole of the Americas.

December 23, 2014