By Beatriz Gorostiaga.
On December 17, 2014, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States, ending America’s 54-year embargo on Cuba. Their announcement to normalize a relationship that has been trapped in the logic of the Cold War hinted at the possibility of cooperation between the two countries. However, complete restoration might not be as easy as presented, given that historically the United States has not recognized Cuba as an equal power. While reconciliation is a first step towards restoring relations, a true change in the dynamics of power will not result from simple normalization of diplomatic prosperity. The United States must recognize Cuba as a sovereign nation to fulfill the promises of reconciliation.
Cuba’s independence coincided with the United States’ rise as a world power. Spanish influence in the Caribbean began to wane in the early 19th century, and the American government saw expansionism as a means of strengthening its political capabilities. Cuban rebels began to actively resist Spanish imperial rule, and the United States eventually intervened in Cuba’s War of Independence. Episodes of US intervention continued throughout the following decades, reaching a climax during the territorial expropriation of Guantanamo Bay in 1903. Guantanamo remains under US control, and is home to the controversial GTMO detention camp. An enduring US presence has deterred Cuba from taking action against the continuous human rights violations that critics claim have come to characterize the camp. Cubans have detested America’s presence in Guantanamo Bay and see the United States’ continued control of the area as a direct violation of national sovereignty. Thus this is another reason for advocating for cooperative political engagement between the nations. An efficient push for the dismantlement of GTMO and the return of the territory to Cuba seems more feasible under normalized Cuba-US relations.
Cuba’s post-independence period came to an end with Fulgencio Batista’s military coup. Under US support for formal recognition of the new government, Batista inaugurated a dictatorship of fear and oppression. Seven years passed before Fidel Castro’s rebel forces toppled the regime and established socialist Cuba in 1959. A Marxist-Leninist and fervent Cuban nationalist, Fidel Castro despised the hegemonic shadow that he saw the United States cast over Cuba. Acknowledging previous historical experience sheds light onto Cuba’s aggressive change in policy towards the United States following the Cuban Revolution. With the nationalization of all foreign assets and a rise in taxes on US imports, Castro’s socialist policies truly challenged US-Cuban power dynamics. This was the nation’s first attempt to break from its enduring subordination. These measures aimed to develop Cuba’s national economy, particularly reducing dependency, as the island economically relied on sugar exports to the United States.
In the context of the Cold War, however, the change in policy easily translated into political hostility. As Cuba received an invitation to trade with the Soviet Union, the United States consolidated its antagonism towards the island. Increased tensions quickly resulted in a trade embargo and the severing of diplomatic ties with the island. This embargo had devastating economic effects for Cuba, whose economy was still tightly linked to American interests. In a market dictated by the Castro regime, inflation skyrocketed and necessary goods were often scarce. What followed was a period of offenses and defenses, with the infamous failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
With this recent normalization, the United States and Cuba have finally ended a half-century of latent (and at times direct) hostility. Though both the United States and Cuba stand to benefit greatly from the future of the restoration of diplomatic relations and enhanced channels of trade, there is still much work to be done to fully realize the potential of this partnership. Efforts at normalization have promised the opening of a US embassy in Cuba and the loosening of travel restrictions, but have not guaranteed the lifting of the embargo, which would require congressional approval. The American presence in Guantanamo territory questions whether the normalization of relations has really shown a promise of partnership to Cuba. Bilateral political engagement cannot be promoted without first reversing these remaining policies.
The biggest benefit of the end of the embargo is the advance of democracy and open markets in Latin America. In the embargo era, China replaced the United States as Cuba’s top trading partner. By normalizing the bitterly strained relations, 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. As commodity prices tumble and economic growth stalls, Latin America needs open markets, trade and regional cooperation —including with the north.
Now that diplomatic relations have been restored, the United States must look towards a future of political and economic coexistence with the Castro regime, which, though not as extreme as Fidel’s, remains socialist. The question remaining is whether the US government is willing to truly recognize Cuba’s capacity for self-governance without intervening in the island’s politics, and how large a leap Congress is willing to take to bring an end to the most tense North American rivalry of the 20th century.