By David Roberts
Cuban President Raúl Castro's recent comments at a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States that before full diplomatic relations can be established with Washington, first the US must lift the trade embargo on the island, pay compensation for the damage it has caused the country and return Guantánamo military base need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
The US quickly ruled out discussing the Guantánamo base, which is a legacy of the Spanish-American war of the late 19th century, while the embargo cannot be lifted without congressional approval, which given the fact that both houses of the US congress are now controlled by the Republicans will be no mean feat.
So does that mean the end of the US-Cuba rapprochement? That's unlikely, not least because Cuba has a great deal to benefit from the historic agreement announced in December to restore full diplomatic ties, along with President Barack Obama's pledge to work to lift the 54-year embargo and a prisoner swap.
The embargo was, after all, designed to punish the Fidel Castro regime and encourage its downfall, and Obama had said previously he would not support ending the 'blockade', as it is known in Cuba, unless there was political change on the island. While Cuba has partially opened up its economy in the last few years since Raúl took over from Fidel, there has been zero political change.
The thaw in relations involves what Obama's critics have described as a series of concessions to Cuba with nothing in return, such as increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cubans and allowing exports of telecommunications equipment and building materials, among others. The US also agreed to ease travel restrictions on its citizens wishing to visit Cuba, and allow US credit and debit cards to be used in the Caribbean country.
Obama also promised to review Cuba's listing on the US government's list of state sponsors of terrorism, where it was placed in 1982 and is currently accompanied by Iran, Syria and Sudan. That decision could pave the way for other economic or political sanctions to be lifted.
Despite these 'concessions,' does the agreement amount to a real change in US strategy towards Cuba? Or is it merely an acknowledgement that isolating Havana is not going to bring political change, whereas encouraging economic ties may lead to the communist-ruled country opening up – widespread use of the internet could be key – and eventually regime change? It seems unlikely that Obama has come to accept the existence of the totalitarian regime and, although he may not say it in public, he presumably believes the fresh approach will indeed result in change.
The risk on the part of Obama, therefore, is limited, given the clear failure of past policies and the fact that much now depends on congress, while the risk on the part of Raúl Castro is much greater. The Cuban regime has long used the embargo and the US policy towards Havana as a scapegoat for the country's ills, and an excuse to rule with an iron fist. If that goes, the future of communist rule will be threatened. That is a risk that Raúl Castro (maybe even both Castros) must be well aware of, just as he surely must have expected Washington's predictable response to the Guantanamo demand. So while it's easy to be cynical and cast doubt on his sincerity and willingness to follow through on the agreement, the Cuban leader's courage to enter this period of entente with Washington is something worthy of recognition.
February 10, 2015