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Print Edition> World
UPDATED: August 24, 2015 NO. 35, AUGUST 27, 2015
Nice Try But No Cigar?
By Sun Chenghao

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) attends the flag-raising ceremony at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana, capital of Cuba, on August 14 (XINHUA)

It seems that the U.S.-Cuban relations have entered the fast-track with a recent series of interactions between the long estranged neighbors. Last December, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro ushered in a new era of normalization for U.S.-Cuban relations. This April, the two leaders held historic face-to-face talks during the Summit of the Americas. Later on in May, the United States dropped Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorists. In July, the two countries restored full diplomatic relations by re-opening embassies in each other's countries.

However, despite these promising signs, the development of bilateral ties in the near future is likely to enter a period of lull, as some advantageous conditions fade from view and some deep-seated divergences prove hard to overcome.

The first factor is the diminishing influence of President Obama, whose tenure is fast drawing to a close. It's true that Obama has devoted a lot of time and effort to U.S.-Cuban relations. In August 2007, the then-Senator Obama published an article in the Miami Herald, calling for taking steps to normalize relations and ease the embargo as the Cuban Government appeared to be opening up to democratic change. After taking the presidency, he signed a Senate appropriations bill into law which made it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba in 2009. From 2013 to 2014, the secret diplomacy taking place between the United States and Cuba, aided by Canada and Pope Francis, finally resulted in a landmark deal on prisoner swaps and a resumption of the bilateral relations between the two. Obama successfully used his executive power to make this breakthrough and secure a diplomatic legacy. The possibility cannot be ruled out that Obama will visit Cuba and sign an agreement with the country in areas such as anti-narcotics, but achieving something like this is much harder than the work he has accomplished, which may discourage him in taking bolder actions.

Moreover, if the new president taking power in 2017 is a Republican, it remains in question if the current pace of normalization can be maintained, given that most Republican presidential candidates have denounced the Obama administration's decision to reopen embassies in the capitals of Cuba and the United States.

Outstanding issues

The biggest obstacle is still the economic blockade the United States imposes on Cuba. The U.S. executive and legislative power structure, which harbors various "veto points," has made it even harder to lift it. The Cuban Government has long called for the blockade's removal. However, as the removal requires passage through what is at present a Republican-dominated Congress, and given the fact that many Republicans oppose the idea, it is very unlikely indeed that all punitive economic measures against Cuba would be lifted within Obama's tenure. That being said, the president's efforts in lifting some restrictions concerning travel, finance, and remittance are conducive to increasing contact between the two peoples and may facilitate the gradual formation of a drive in Congress to abolish the sanctions.

At the operational level, Congress has the potential to throw a spanner in the works in terms of embassy funding and ambassador appointment. Republican senators and presidential candidates such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have openly stated their opposition to the funding of an embassy in Havana or any ambassador appointments, unless the Obama administration can persuade Cuba to lift its restrictions on U.S. diplomats and to guarantee greater political freedom for its people.

On the Cuban side, after decades of blockade, the sense of wariness and suspicion toward the United States, from the leadership down to the ordinary man on the street, can hardly be expected to disappear overnight. Castro stressed several preconditions for normalization in a letter addressed to President Obama: a gradual thawing of relations based on the UN Charter and Vienna Convention, mutual trust and non-interference. Cuba also stated the fact that the two countries haven't yet reached consensus on immigration, human rights, free passage of diplomatic personnel, the issue of returning Guantánamo, and compensation for losses incurred by sanctions.

However, a slowdown does not necessarily mean that normalization will proceed in the opposite direction. First of all, the United States has not normalized its relations with Cuba on a mere whim. In fact, since Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), while adopting high-handed or isolationist policies, it has not been unheard of for U.S. presidents to contact or make overtures to the Cuban Government or its representatives in various ways. President John F. Kennedy asked his advisors to consider a more flexible policy toward Cuba; during Gerald Ford's administration, Henry Kissinger directed his aides to engage Castro directly; and President Jimmy Carter signed a presidential executive order, requesting secret face-to-face talks with the country with a view to normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations. Therefore, no matter who becomes the next U.S. president, inertia will push them to pursue a prudent and practical Cuba policy. The development of bilateral relations may prove sporadic in the future, but will march forward in leaps and bounds.

Another important factor is the changing attitude toward U.S.-Cuban relations within the Cuban-American community, even among older generation of immigrants. The views held by the second and third generation of the immigrants, who advocate influencing Cuba by engagement in order to achieve thawing relations, have proved influential. According to a poll conducted by Florida International University among Cuban-Americans, back in 1991, 87 percent of Cuban-Americans supported the embargo. But after President Obama was elected in 2008, that viewpoint shifted completely. In the 2014 poll, 68 percent of respondents favored restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. This sea change in public opinion will lay a solid foundation for normalization.

The normalization will bring tangible benefits to U.S. citizens, who would be able to visit the Antilles island state more conveniently; and to U.S. companies, which would have more access to the largest country in the Caribbean by size and population. Politically speaking, the United States can better promote its values—"democracy and human rights"—in Cuba through an interactive and flexible approach rather than a rigid and dogmatic one, which would run the risk of isolating the socialist power. Cuba also needs to increase engagement with its neighbor. From 2011, the country has accelerated its economic reform even though it faces numerous difficulties, in particular the lack of external support owing to the U.S. embargo. Cuba's annual GDP growth rate in 2013 was 2.7 percent, far less than the 3.6 percent the government had anticipated. Owing to the Ukraine crisis and dropping oil prices, Cuba's most important trading partners Russia and Venezuela were both experiencing their own difficulties and could hardly be counted upon to help.

The normalization will also change the geopolitical landscape across the American continents. The United States may return to Latin America, where it could play an influential role in the integration of the region. In addition, just as Cuba is toning down its anti-U.S. rhetoric, anti-American sentiment in Latin America is similarly ebbing.

The China factor

Some scholars have been tempted to draw the conclusion that the United States is cleaning up its "backyard" and diminishing China's influence in Latin America by reopening relations with Cuba.

The argument, however, is reminiscent of the Cold War mentality which would perceive the normalization from the perspective of a "zero-sum game."

As a longtime friend of Cuba, China is more than happy to see the economic development of the country improving amid a more clement environment. China is one of Cuba's biggest markets and suppliers of goods. The improvement of local trade and the country's investment environment will no doubt better facilitate Chinese enterprises in doing business with Cuba.

Cuba also needs China's support when it comes to developing relations with the United States and other Western countries. Since the ice was broken in U.S.-Cuban relations, many Western politicians have visited Cuba in quest of developing business ties. However, Cuba understands the danger of overdependence on the United States or Western economies, especially given its bitter experience of relying too much on the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Marino Murillo, now Chairman of the Economic Policy Commission of Cuba, has called for attracting diversified investment as opposed to the nation placing all of its eggs in one basket. China could potentially help Cuba to accomplish this diversification, thus aiding the country's economic development.

The author is an assistant research fellow with the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Copyedited by Eric Daly 

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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