It was perhaps an unfortunate way of putting it, but President Obama has hailed the improvement in US-Cuban relations as emblematic of America ‘cut[ting] loose the shackles of the past’. I say unfortunate because in the wake of the controversy concerning the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture and continued unrest concerning the legal-judicial and policing treatment of African-Americans, there still remains a great deal of concern about how the United States shackles its own citizens and others. But that, as they say, is another story.
President Obama’s rhetorical flourish has some purchase, however. US-Cuban relations have, for much of the last six decades, been poor. Ever since the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro, the United States deeply resented the presence of a communist government in Cuba, which is only some 100 odd nautical miles from southern Florida. During the Cold War, Cuban-Soviet relations provoked considerable anxiety amongst US administrations, and even the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming, was asked for his views in the 1960s about how Castro might be assassinated or undermined. In October 1962, the world held its breath as the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear conflict as arguments raged about Soviet missiles being stationed in Cuba.
Since those testing times, the US attitude has largely been one characterized by cessation of diplomatic relations, trade embargoes and accommodation of Cuban refugees in US cities such as Miami. For the film buffs amongst you, the Al Pacino film Scarface (1983) addressed, in rather unflattering terms, the Cuban émigré legacy. But all of this is set to change as President Obama announced a marked shift in US policy and predicted that a US embassy would be opened in Havana and thus signalling that relations with Cuba are being normalized. They are also plans to ease travel restrictions for US citizens and for a general easing of financial and economic relations with Cuba. Before the champagne is brought out, it is worth bearing in mind that any changes regarding, for example the US trade embargo will need to be approved by a Republican-controlled Congress and Republicans in general tend to think off Cuba in very negative terms – even as far as designating the country a sponsor of terrorism in 1982 (and this still remains today – further evidence of how Cold War legacies are stubbornly evident).
Assuming that US-Cuban relations normalize further in 2015, there are certain factors that have helped this direction of diplomatic traffic. For one thing Canada and the Vatican have played a role as intermediaries and Obama’s announcement about ‘cutting shackles’ comes after months of patient and discreet diplomacy. What helped matters was the decision to free the high profile US captive Alan Gross who had been jailed in 2009 for allegedly engaging in anti-Cuban activities while on a visit to the island. He returned to the US earlier this month. In exchange, three Cuban citizens were released from US jails early, after they had been prosecuted successfully in 2001 for spying on the Cuban community in Miami and for trying to gain illegal access to US military bases.
Another factor worth reflecting upon is the Cuban community in Miami. Traditionally, Cuban émigrés have been very critical of Fidel and Raul Castro and the Cuban communist government more generally. Some US commentators suggest that younger Cuban-Americans are rather less militant towards Castro and communist Cuba. And perhaps also there is growing recognition of Cuba’s international work whether it be supporting efforts to treat Ebola patients in West Africa to brokering peace deals with the Columbian government and FARC rebel forces. The idea that Cuba is a sponsor of terrorism doesn’t hold quite the same grip on the US geopolitical imagination as it once did.
For all of the above, perhaps the real reason for US-Cuban rapprochement is a handshake. In December 2013, Barack Obama and Raul Castro shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. While he was criticized by many back in the United States for touching the hand of his Cuban opposite number, it might have helped pave the way towards the ending of half a century of ill-feeling and resentment. We might call it ‘haptic diplomacy’.