As the clock struck midnight on Sunday, the US and Cuba restored full diplomatic ties, ending more than half a century of mutual hostility. The Cuban embassy is set to hold a ceremony in Washington to mark its reopening.
The new era of US-Cuban relations began with little fanfare on Monday when the diplomatic missions in both countries were upgraded from interests sections to embassies.
The reopening of the embassies in Washington and Havana is part of an attempt by the administration of US President Barack Obama to normalize relations between the two countries.
The historic thaw in over 50 years of animosity was set to be marked later in the day with a formal inauguration of the Cuban embassy in Washington. Cuba’s blue, red and white-starred flag will fly for the first time since the two countries severed ties during the Cold War in 1961. The American stars and stripes will not fly in Havana, however, until US Secretary of State John Kerry visits for a ceremonial flag-raising in August.
Wayne Smith, who headed the US Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982 and is a careful observer of the present change of course in US-Cuban relations, welcomed the restoration of ties between the countries.
“It is a radical change but a very positive one,” Wayne Smith told DW.
“The United States has followed an utterly unproductive path,” he said. “Rather than trying over time to engage with Cuba, we turned down every opportunity.”
Only about 145 kilometers (91 miles) of water separates Cuba from the southern tip of Florida in the United States. But for several decades, all diplomatic ties between the two countries were on ice.
A mere change of sign
Surprisingly enough, the US has had a huge diplomatic presence in Havana over the past years, consisting of about 50 American and 300 Cuban employees, Obama’s former Cuba policy adviser Dan Restrepo told US broadcaster CNN. “The US Interests Section is the largest diplomatic gathering in the country,” he said.
The US Interests Section is housed in the building that was the US embassy before both countries broke off all diplomatic ties. The State Department’s plans for the future mission and work of the embassy after the reopening are unclear at this point. Decisions in this area are dependent on the funds that are currently in the hands of the US Congress.
But after Obama announced his intention to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba on December 17, last year, a backlash from that very Congress was not long in coming.
Cuba expert Ana Quintana from the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, agrees with the president’s critics.
“As part of his normalization bid with the Castro regime, the president has granted the dictatorship another in a series of dangerous concessions,” says Quintana on the Foundation’s website. She slams Obama for the way he, in her words, “drastically eased sanctions, lobbied Congress to lift the embargo and removed Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list.”
According to Wayne Smith, however, Obama’s new Cuba course equates with the political realities: “As we began the policy back in the sixties, Mexico was the only Latin American country to maintain trade relations with Cuba, but by 2014 it was the United States that was isolated. Every country in the hemisphere had established diplomatic trade relations with Cuba.”
The supporters of Obama’s Cuba policy are in the majority. According to the fact tank Pew Research Center, 63% of Americans support stronger US ties with Cuba.
But the opposition is not easily impressed. The Republicans who dominate the House of Representatives have announced that they will try to block Obama’s moves on Cuba.
The question is, however, what they can really do.
“Though Congress can vote against an ambassadorial appointment or block supplemental appropriations requested for opening the embassy, there is nothing it can do to stop the administration from putting a sign in front that says ’embassy,'” explains Eric Hershberg, Director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at the American University in Washington, D.C.
An embassy but no ambassador
As for the US ambassador to Cuba, the chances are high that Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chief of Mission at the US Interests Section in Havana, will be the person proposed by Obama’s administration.
Latin America expert Hershberg predicts that the Senate will refuse to consider that nomination and adds that DeLaurentis “will remain as the Chief of Mission in Havana in an embassy. But at an embassy where he will not hold formal ambassadorial rank.”
Embargo likely to stay
According to the results of the polls run by Pew Research Center, about 66% of Americans are also in favour of the US ending its trade embargo against Cuba.
But optimism that the embargo will actually be lifted is hard to find among experts. Observers in Washington predict that Congress will not vote to overturn it, despite encouragement from the administration to do so.
Given the present Congressional boundaries, it is very unlikely that the Republicans will lose their majority in Congress.
“My assessment is that as long as they have it, they will keep the embargo in place,” Hershberg says. “That is, unless there is a change of government in Cuba. But there is not going to be, so I don’t expect that we will see the embargo formally lifted for at least the next five years.”
Regardless of the embargo, the lives of the Cuban people are going to change after the reopening of the US embassy in Havana. Smith is convinced it will bring many advantages to the country.
“I think the opening of the embassy will benefit the Cubans. Cubans and Americans really get along. There is something between us.”
OPINION: A good start for Cuba-US relations
Cuba is gradually emerging from diplomatic isolation after decades of ostracism, as it and the United States open embassies in each other’s capitals. It’s a good start but it comes too late, writes DW’s Miodrag Soric.
When in a few decades historians look back at the presidency of Barack Obama, they will see this as an important achievement: The resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba, after more than half a Century of often deep hostility on the political stage. Ultimately, Obama’s predecessors should have approached Havana years ago. No communist state can remain the way it is if its citizens enjoy the benefits of a free-market economy. Sooner or later, dictators are forced to compromise. But Washington long remained stubborn, even after the end of the Cold War in Europe.
Without meaning to, previous US presidents strengthened the communists in Havana. If anything went wrong over the decades, they blamed the “evil Americans” – whether for the bottlenecks in consumer goods or for the poor infrastructure. That should change with the establishment of diplomatic relations. US capital will flood Cuba, at least in the medium term. And hopefully it will wash away the political legacy of the Castro brothers.
Why did it take Washington so long to develop a pragmatic and flexible approach to the Caribbean island? Until 1991, the American-Cuban rivalry was part of the Cold War. Havana became an outpost of the Soviet Union, even if this was not what former President Fidel Castro had initially wanted. When the red flag was taken down from the roofs of the Kremlin, an economically difficult time began in Cuba. Presidents George Bush (the first and second) and Bill Clinton hoped that sooner or later, communist rule in Havana would become superfluous and ultimately disappear. But the Castros proved to be tenacious and simply stayed in power, like dinosaurs who did not want to understand that their time is over.
At the same time, the influence of Cuban exiles in the United States remained strong. Their current figurehead is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, now a Republican presidential candidate. A son of Cuban parents, he is a vehement opponent of establishing diplomatic relations with Havana. Rubio regarded Obama’s decision to establish diplomatic relations as a “betrayal” of the victims of the Castro regime.
Hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles share his sentiment, especially those who are older than 40. In contrast, younger Cubans support an end to the blockade policy. They want to visit the land of their parents and grandparents. Just 150 kilometers (90 miles) separate the Florida Keys from Cuba, but until now bridging that distance was difficult, or impossible.
Opening the diplomatic door
That will now change with the establishment of diplomatic relations. Travel to the Caribbean island will be simple and inexpensive, and regular flights will start between Cuba and New York and other cities. In the autumn, they will be joined by ferry connections between the two countries. A boat takes three-and-a-half hours to reach Cuba from Florida – and a ticket should cost $170 (about 160 euros). The interest is enormous, according to ship-owners. The mood is somewhat similar to a gold rush.
So, all is well? Not quite. Opening the diplomatic door will bring light into the darkness of Cuban politics. The people on the island will look at their everyday life with different eyes. Political change will come. And it will be difficult. That’s the lesson drawn from the experience of the former communist countries in Eastern Europe.
But by then, at the latest, the Cubans will need a financially strong partner who can help them to cope with the political and economic transition to a free society. The US can and must be this partner – but only if it learns from the mistakes of the past. One of them is trying to have a say in the governance of other countries.
Partnership means to meet on an equal footing. With the establishment of diplomatic relations, a good start has been made – nothing more.