Cuban-American relations thaw.
There is one incontrovertible fact about Cuba that underpins relations between the United States and Cuba: It is only approximately ninety miles away.
From the U.S. long-run perspective, it is essential that Cuba ultimately come into what international relations specialists call our “sphere of influence.” The Cuban Missile Crisis, in October of 1962, underscored that view. That crisis saw a direct confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States over the Soviet placement of ballistic missiles in Cuba. Many believe that was the closest we came to a nuclear confrontation in the Cold War years.
Yet the United States has had a long running special relationship with Cuba. It began since just before Cuba became an independent country. The United States in the Spanish-American War in 1898 wrestled Cuba, Guam and Puerto Rico from Spain. Cuban independence was proclaimed in 1902. And the United States’ “special relationship” with Cuba was cemented by the several Cuban American Treaties of 1903, which provided for a perpetual lease of a U.S. naval base in Guantanamo. In conjunction with this, the U.S. agreed to withdraw all of its forces, which had remained there since the Spanish-American War.
From the Cuban long-run perspective, trade with the U.S., and tourism from it, are long-run necessities, economically speaking. Despite many efforts to expand the economic base of Cuba, by a variety of governments there, it has still been basically a one-crop economy–sugar. In the 1930’s, with considerable involvement by organized crime, especially with gambling and prostitution, a significant tourism industry, mainly from the U.S., was developed.
That ended following the victory, in January of 1959, of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary “July 26 Movement” over the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro’s Agrarian Reform Law, which nationalized all of the sugar producing lands, the nationalization of the few Cuban oil companies, both of which were largely American owned, the legalization of the Communist Party in Cuba, and the signing of a trade agreement with the U.S.S.R, in February of 1960, all in our “backyard,” so to say, were steps much too far for the United States government. In October of 1960, Eisenhower’s administration placed an embargo on all exports to Cuba (extended to ban imports, in 1962). Many scholars believe that because the world at that time was basically bi-polar, the U.S. actions further drove Cuba into the Soviet camp.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, between 1988-91, it appeared to many to be only a matter of time before age attrition of Cuba’s leaders and natural economic forces would lead to a resumption of relations between the United States and Cuba. Russian aid and subsidies to the Cuban economy, as well as Russian tourism, began a steady decline. It should be noted that the American tourist industry, especially in the Caribbean, where Cuba is the largest country, has grown to enormous proportions in the past two decades.
In the United States, the large Cuban expatriate population, largely settled in southern Florida, has become a significant political force. There had been a Cuban emigration wave from back in the days of the Spanish-American War. This paled compared to the waves of Cubans who made it out of Cuba since Castro took over. It is important to differentiate between those Cubans who arrived on Florida’s shores in the early 1960’s. The first group fled the emergence of Castro. They were largely supporters of the dictator Batista, and economically dependent on his policies. The second wave included many who were sympathetic to Castro’s early goals. But they became alarmed when, nightly, they heard the execution shots fired from the sports arenas at a growing number of their friends and acquaintances. Many took “vacations” to Mexico from which they came to Florida. Then came their children, most of whom were born in the United States. The first wave of Cuban immigrants are vocal and sometimes violent in their opposition to opening relations with Cuba. They largely support the conservative wing of the Republican Party. The second wave, in my experience, and supported by some poll data, are more flexible. It is obvious that as Fidel Castro has aged, almost to oblivion, so have many from those first two waves. The first anti-Castro immigrants’ wealth, however, is disproportionate to their numbers as is their political power. The children of both waves, while covering the range of possible opinions on opening relations with Cuba, are largely more receptive to the idea.
Against this background, and with the path paved by the diplomatic efforts of the remarkable Pope Francis, secret discussions held in Canada and Vatican City have led to a first thaw in the opening of relations with Cuba. President Obama, on December 17, 2014, lifted the ban on travel to Cuba, and the opening of a U.S. embassy In Havana.
These important first steps in the normalization of relations with Cuba have been, as expected, denounced by those remaining from the first wave of immigrants, largely pro-Batista Cubans, and some from their children, most vocally Senator Marco Rubio from Florida. The second generation of Cuban-Americans are largely supportive of President Obama’s move.
After all, the aged Fidel is largely irrelevant, and his brother Raul, who leads Cuba now, is 83. The time is right. It remains to be seen how extreme and effective those who oppose Obama’s move will become. Lifting the embargo is a necessary next step, but remember, it will take an act of Congress to lift the embargo.