Engaging with Cuba

In a conciliatory gesture, the Obama administration recently eased restrictions on telecommunications with Cuba and now allows unlimited money transfers and travel for people with relatives in one of the few remaining communist states.

Yesterday, Cuban President Raul Castro dismissed the change in US policy as “achieving only the minimum,” and said that his regime would not take any immediate steps to appease the American government.

He put the onus for rapprochement back on Washington, saying “It is not Cuba who has to make gestures.”

Relations between the US and Cuba have been hostile since the early 1960s when Cuban President Fidel Castro allied with the Soviet Union and the Kennedy administration imposed an economic embargo on the island nation and cut off diplomatic ties.  Although there have since been calls in the US for lifting the embargo and establishing normal relations with Cuba, no American administration has been willing to do so, partly out of fear of alienating anti-Castro Cuban-American voters in Florida, a key electoral state.

Now that the Cold War is over, Fidel Castro has relinquished power to his brother, and a younger generation of Cuban-Americans that supports more open relations is politically active, there appears to be less opposition to engaging with the Cuban regime.  The Obama administration, which has championed engagement with hostile regimes as a cornerstone of its foreign policy, might be more amenable than previous administrations to improving relations with Cuba.

Arguments for closer ties argue that the embargo has clearly failed, given that the communists remain in power nearly 50 years after the policy was implemented, and therefore serves no purpose.  Some believe that a greater US presence in the country will undermine the autocratic regime and help usher in democracy.  Pro-engagement partisans point to the US relationship with communist China and say that the US should have a similar relationship with Cuba for economic and political reasons.

Opponents argue such a policy would prop up the communists and enable them to stay in power because the Cuban economy would improve significantly if US dollars start pouring into it.  They also claim that normalizing relations will signal American acquiescence to a brutal dictatorship.

It is unclear if the Obama administraiton will take further steps to improve relations with Cuba.  Its general policy of trying to work with antagonistic regimes suggests that it will, although Cuba is a relatively minor foreign policy problem for a president who has many more pressing issues on his agenda, and therefore Obama might not be willing to expend much time, effort and political capital to deal with it.

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