Cuba -- US Relations One Year Later

DPA/Havana Times

By: Beatriz Juez

HAVANA TIMES — The long enmity between the Cuban and US governments didn’t come to an end when the bilateral thaw was announced. New challenges begin to crystallize a year after the historical rapprochement between the two ideological rivals began, experts believe.

Though some consider Havana has more pending issues to resolve, everyone agrees that the announcement made on December 17, 2014 gave rise to a new era between both countries.

“We shouldn’t underestimate the power of symbolism,” John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, tells DPA. McAuliff recalls that, a little over a year ago, the United States did not directly deal with Cuba at international fora and now the two governments hold frequent meetings.

“We’ve made more progress in a year than in the past 40,” says an equally satisfied James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, an organization calling for the lifting of the embargo and an end to restrictions on travel to the island by US citizens.

“If we put this in the context of the 54 years in which no progress has been made in any of the central bilateral issues, I believe things are moving at great speed. Would we like things to move more quickly? Of course,” Williams opines.

“Progress goes beyond symbolism, which is also important,” president of the think tank Dialogo Interamericano Michael Shifter believes.

Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Latin American public policies analyst working for the CATO institute, states that “much of the enthusiasm surrounding Cuba this year has a lot more to do with what the United States is doing with respect to Cuba than what Cuba is doing with respect to itself. Now, the focus of attention is on the island,” he comments.

That said, the progress made last year would have been unthinkable not long ago. In 12 months, Washington and Havana have not only reopened their embassies but have also reached environmental agreements, have exchanged prisoners, taken steps forward in issues of telecommunications and aviation and have reached an agreement to re-establish direct postal services, among other achievements.

Castro and Obama have met on two occasions and spoken on the phone several times. US State Secretary John Kerry, Trade Minister Penny Pritzker, Minister for Agriculture Tom Visalck and three US governors have visited the island.

The United States has also relaxed aspects of its embargo and travel restrictions, and Congress has several bills submitted to dismantle the embargo altogether.

However, there are still many pending issues after more than half a century of hostilities.

Experts consulted by DPA concur that, in order for relations between the two countries to be normalized, the United States must lift the embargo and the travel restrictions applied to US citizens. Cuba is the only country in the world that US citizens are not allowed to visit as tourists.

“The term normalization means a relationship like any other, a normal relationship,” Hidalgo explains. “The embargo is an act of economic war,” McAuliff claims.

Though President Barack Obama has implemented several measures to relax restrictions, he cannot decree the lifting of the embargo on his own. Only Congress, with a Republican majority, can fully eliminate the embargo.

“The next step would be to lift the embargo, but I don’t think the Republicans have any intention of doing this,” says Wayne Smith, director of the Center for International Policy’s Cuba Project.

Smith, who has been calling for talks between Havana and Washington for years, points out that the United States has yet to appoint an ambassador to Cuba because the Republicans would veto him.

“Compensation for US properties (nationalized on the island after 1959) and the reparations that Cubans are demanding for the damage caused by the economic embargo are also on the table. The issue of Guantanamo also has to be addressed at some point,” says Shifter, who believes one of the thorniest issues has to do with democracy and human rights on the island.

“It’s fascinating to see how things have progressed in many ways and how many challenges lie ahead,” the president of Engage Cuba concludes.