Viva la Cuba

Cuban Embassy Opens in Washington

Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations on 20 July 2015, which had been severed in 1961 during the Cold War. Editor in Chief DREW GOWING remembers the historic re-opening of Cuba's embassy in Washington last year, and queries what a Trump presidency may do for US-Cuba relations.

Cuba’s blue, red and white-starred flag has been raised above the country’s newly inaugurated embassy in Washington, heralding the formal restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. The establishment of embassies in both Washington and Havana, for the first time in 54 years, marked the symbolic end to one of the last vestiges of the cold war. After more than half a century of diplomatic animosity, the world’s capitalist superpower is once again on formal speaking terms with the small, communist state to the south.

Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, flew to Washington to preside over the flag-raising ceremony on Monday and met with his US counterpart, John Kerry. It was the first time a Cuban foreign minister was hosted by a secretary of state in Washington since 1958. Appearing side by side at a State Department press conference, both diplomats expressed hope that a reset between the US and Cuba would lead to significant improvements in relations between the two countries.

Some changes are already afoot, after travel restrictions and limits on remittances to Cuba were eased. In May, President Barack Obama removed Cuba from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. But Kerry and Rodríguez both acknowledged that the rapprochement falls short of full diplomatic normalisation, and spoke at length about the hurdles that still divide both sides. “This milestone does not signify an end to the many differences that still separate our governments,” Kerry said. “But it does reflect the reality that the cold war ended long ago and that the interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement.” He added: “Nothing is more futile than trying to live in the past.”

Nothing is more futile than living in the past
John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State

Rodríguez was more forceful in his remarks, stating that future progress would be contingent upon the end of the long-running trade embargo that has for decades suffocated the Cuban economy and the return of Guantánamo Bay, the US naval facility used to detain terror suspects on the Caribbean island. “I emphasised that the total lifting of the blockade, the return of the illegally occupied territory of Guantánamo, as well as full respect for Cuban sovereignty and compensation to our people for human and economic damages, are crucial to be able to move toward the normalisation of relations,” Rodríguez said of his meeting with Kerry.

Obama has called for an end to the trade embargo and also wants to close Guantánamo Bay’s detention facility, but the White House’s ability to implement change in either area is limited. Both require the backing of the US Congress, which is controlled by Republicans opposed to the thaw in relations with Cuba.

The strength of Cuban passions was on display earlier in the day, during the opening ceremony for the Cuban embassy, which had all the bustle of a gathering in downtown Havana. Dozens of people, including journalists, lawmakers and diplomats, were locked outside the gates in searing heat amid large crowds. Inside, guests sipped cocktails while their Cuban hosts played an unexpected rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. The flag was raised shortly after 10.30am by three Cuban soldiers dressed in white dress uniforms. There were shouts of “Viva Cuba socialista!” and, in a denunciation of the embargo – commonly referred to as a blockade in Havana – chants of “Cuba sí – bloqueo no.”

The US embassy will be officially inaugurated with a similar ceremony in August, when Kerry travels to Cuba – the first US secretary of state to visit the Caribbean island in more than 70 years. The visit will complete a major foreign policy achievement for Obama, who made dialogue with America’s adversaries such as Cuba and Iran a campaign pledge during his first election in 2008,

The president was born on the same year – 1961 – that diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US were severed by then president Dwight Eisenhower in the wake of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary insurrection. Obama has long pushed for the rapprochement with the Caribbean island and was the driving force behind months of secret talks with Havana that, with the support of Pope Francis, paved the way for the resumption of diplomatic relations.

The Trump Era

Jet Blue and American flights loaded with tourists, businessmen, academics and journalists fly in and out of Cuba every day, perhaps the most dramatic and visible sign of the thaw in Washington-Havana relations since the restoration of relations nearly two years ago.

Beautifully restored and renovated hotels in Havana, including three hotels managed by the U.S. hotelier Starwood, cater to the throng of fast-spending travelers who are happily overrunning the Cuban capital, disgorging from spiffy tourist buses and packing restaurants and nightclubs, and turning the government-run tourism industry into a major source of revenue for the impoverished island.

Donald Trump's election casts doubt on the new Cuba-U.S. policy after his promise during the campaign that he would reverse President Obama's efforts to restore relations.

Cuba has answered mostly with public silence. President Raúl Castro messaged congratulations to Trump on his victory, but the official government newspaper Granma reported on Wednesday [Dec 9] that Cuba would hold military preparedness exercises for the first time in three years, suggesting that Havana may be gearing up for a hostile Trump administration.

"Is he really going to tell American Airlines and Jet Blue they can't fly to Cuba,'' Stephens asked, "and tell Cuban Americans they can no longer visit their families on the island, and tell church groups and students they can't go to Cuba or use their cellphones to call their families at home if they go?"

"These are some of the people who are now invested, in economic and emotional terms, in the new policy," said Stephens. "He can take it back to square one, but that's a choice with pretty significant consequences."

Over the past 15 years, Stephens has led over 60 fact-finding delegations to Cuba including members of Congress, economists, educators, artists, academics and experts. Unlike most visitors to Cuba, her delegations gain access to senior Cuban officials and ministries and include leading American business executives and politicians like Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who have major impact on evolving Cuba policy.

That two-year-old policy, the product of Obama's executive orders, has restored diplomatic relations between the two nations and relaxed U.S. economic sanctions on the island. Americans are traveling to Cuba more easily. Commercial flights are increasing and are set to total some 110 a day. American businesses and corporations are gauging their prospects in a largely untapped Cuban market. Americans can now legally bring back a haul of Cuban cigars and rum, the two most popular Cuban souvenirs.

And yet, there's a long road ahead. Cuba has made it repeatedly clear that it will not consider normalization complete until the U.S. Congress lifts the trade embargo that the U.S. imposed in 1962.

In this new Trump era, with the control of Congress in conservative Republican hands, lifting the embargo seems a long way off.

"We will cancel Obama's one-sided Cuban deal, made by executive order, if we do not get the deal that we want and the deal that people living in Cuba and here deserve, including protecting religious and political freedom," Trump told Floridians during the campaign, a preview of the uncertain future of Cuba-U.S. relations in the next four years.

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