Todos somos americanos. We are all Americans is Barack Obama’s rallying call as he extended United States’ hand of friendship to Cuba. In a bold step he took on the challenge of finally resolving one of the outstanding anachronisms still prevailing in the globalised world: the 54 year old strained Cold War relationship between the United States and Cuba. It seemed more and more untenable that Cuba should continue to be blacklisted when the United States has since decades normalised relations with Communist China and with Russia and has this year, in a paradigm shift from past US policy, engaged Iran on various contentious issues such as the nuclear issue and concluded in January 2014 together with other world powers an interim agreement with Iran to restrict Iranian’s nuclear programme development. This led to the release of some frozen Iranian assets overseas and the partial lifting of trade sanctions on Iran.
After secret negotiations lasting more than a year between the US and Cuba with the personal involvement of Pope Francis and the good offices of the Vatican and Canada, President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba in parallel statements announced on 17 December moves to normalize diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries. As part of the goodwill building process, a contractor held by Cuba and three Cubans held in the US were released. Barack Obama stated that ‘Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past.’
Cuban crisis revisited
These were indeed shackles and also an archaic mindset of a bygone era. When a 1952 coup ushered General Batista back to power for a second term as President of Cuba, Fidel Castro then a young lawyer petitioned the Cuban courts to overthrow Batista’s corrupt and repressive regime. This was rejected by the courts. The Batista regime had allowed the almost complete domination of the Cuban economy by US interests. Legal means having failed, Fidel Castro, his brother Raul later joined by the Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara led the revolution which ousted Batista to free Cuba in 1959. US President Eisenhower officially recognised the new Cuban Government.
In April 1959, Fidel Castro and a Cuban delegation visited the US and met Vice President Richard Nixon to expose their reform plans of the Cuban economy. US-Cuban relationship soured and deteriorated with Cuban nationalisations of US businesses and land reforms as 75% of the best arable land were owned by foreigners or principally by US companies. In retaliation, the US increased trade restrictions, stopped buying Cuban sugar and ceased supplying fuel oil causing dire consequences to the Cuban economy. Cuba turned to and obtained oil supplies from the Soviet Union. By 1960, all exports to Cuba were prohibited leading Cuba to consolidate its trade ties with the Soviet Union. In 1961, US severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and closed its embassy in Havana.
The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by some 1,500 CIA-trained Cuban exiles in 1961 and the 1962 Missile Crisis over the deployment of Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba at the behest of Fidel Castro epitomised the deep rift between the two countries. Following a secret agreement between the US and Soviet Union leaders, Kennedy and Khrushchev, the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle the missiles and ship them back. In return the US committed never to invade Cuba without direct provocation and secretly also agreed to dismantle US missiles installed in Italy and Turkey. The US imposed a total embargo on all trade with Cuba in 1962, except for medicine and food and in 1963 banned travel and financial transactions of US citizens with Cuba. In 1965, Cuba became Communist.
During his presidential campaign in 1960, John F. Kennedy had criticised US Cuban policy by stating: ‘We let Batista put the US on the side of tyranny, and we did nothing to convince the people of Cuba and Latin America that we wanted to be on the side of freedom.’ Since 1992, the UN General Assembly has every year passed a resolution condemning the ongoing impact of the embargo and declaring it to be in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and international law.
Exit the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union staunch support of Cuba has with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991 dwindled as Moscow found it more difficult to meet its economic responsibilities towards Cuba. While they paid 11 times the world price for Cuban sugar in 1985, this was cut to only three times the world price in 1989. By late 1990, there was more drastic change with the introduction of a new one-year trade agreement as opposed to a hitherto 5-year agreement and the fixing of the sugar price on world market prices. The Soviet Union had been importing 80% of Cuban sugar and 40% of Cuban citrus. Cuban oil imports plummeted from 13 million tons in 1989 to 3 million tons in 1993 from Russia. Thus, trade with the Soviet Union which accounted for almost 85% of Cuban trade declined by 90%. The end of Communism in Europe ended the Soviet-Cuba ties ushering economic hardships in Cuba.
In spite of its isolation, multiple assassination attempts on Fidel Castro and a rigid embargo, Cuba survived owing to its national spirit and resilience. In contrast to the oligarchic system prevailing at the time of the revolution in 1959, the reforms carried out enabled Cuba to provide equal rights to blacks and women in Cuban society, free education (with free meals and uniforms) from preschool to tertiary level guaranteed in the Constitution and free healthcare. Cuba has the largest number of teachers and doctors per capita than any country in the world.
It has 23 medical schools. Its revolutionary ethos has had an influence on Latin American politics including protest movements by indigenous ‘Indios’ population fighting for their rights, a more democratic mode of government and substantive land reforms to bring about radical changes in the very often oligarchic regime prevailing. Such changes have been witnessed in countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua or Costa Rica. Cuba also intervened in the Angolan civil war with troops. For many people Cuba is associated with Ernest Hemingway and the undaunted spirit of the Fidel Castro and Che Guevera led revolution.
In his statement Barack Obama said that the present policy towards Cuba was outdated and stated that as the more than half-a-century-old US embargo had failed to advance US interests, it was time to change policy. The new approach, outlined in a White House release, includes inter alia reviewing the designation of Cuba as a State sponsor of terrorism, easing the travel ban and financial restrictions, increasing telecommunications links and initiating efforts to end the decades old trade embargo.
This sea change in policy has been facilitated by various developments. First and foremost, the powerful Cuban exiles community in Florida who has been rabidly opposed to any rapprochement with Cuba and had traditionally weighed heavily in the outcome of Florida’s vote in presidential elections is no longer as determinant a factor as before. Stoking Cuban Americans angst against the Cuban government was part of standard Republican politics in Florida. However demographics in Florida have changed with the influx of Puerto Ricans. Younger Cuban Americans, born and educated in the US, do not all share their parents’ or grandparents’ anti-Castro hangovers. As a result, Barack Obama won Florida in both his campaigns and made major inroads with Cuban Americans winning more than half of their votes in 2012, the highest by any Democratic presidential candidate.
Furthermore, a new foreign investment law, which received unanimous approval in the Cuban legislature in March 2014, invites foreign investors to operate in all sectors of Cuba’s planned economy, with the exception of four strategic areas: health, education, the media and the military. The object is to draw some $2.5 billion per year in Foreign Direct Investment. FDI in Cuba grew steadily from 1995 to 2002 but shrank in 2011. Spain heads the list of 15 countries doing business in Cuba, which include various EU countries, Canada, Venezuela, China, Mexico, Angola, Panama, Brazil, Chile and Russia, in that order.
In April 2014, the European Union started negotiations for a new political accord which would normalize relations between Cuba and the 28-member countries of the EU. The EU is Cuba’s second most important trading partner (accounting for 20% of total Cuban trade) and was the third most important destination for Cuban exports (21%) and its biggest external investor. Approximately one third of all tourists visiting the island every year come from the EU. The conclusion of a EU-Cuba agreement will put the European Union in a pole position to do more substantive business with Cuba in the context of the new foreign investment law.
The United States does not want to be left behind on such business opportunities on its backdoor. No wonder the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation which normally back Republican candidates to office supported the Obama initiative. However, the core issue of lifting the long-standing trade embargo will depend on the approval of a Republican-controlled Congress. Already reactions to the Obama initiative have aligned themselves along party lines with some influential Republicans still camping on their conservative positions. Public opinion will also have a major say.
Cuba also means sugar. With a production which plummeted from some 8 million tonnes in 1990 to 1.5 million tonnes in 2012-13 and a state-owned industry plagued by organizational and antiquated machinery problems, a domestic consumption of some 700,000 tonnes and sales commitments of 400,000 tonnes to China, Cuba is no longer an important player in world sugar trade. However, the normalization of relations with the US and the EU could bring changes to the situation.
Peace of the Braves
I have always felt that we should not fight old warriors of freedom such as Fidel Castro, General Giap or Yasser Arafat but agree on a Peace of the Braves. When Obama became the first Afro-American President, there were hopes of a new approach especially in his second term of office, to settle some of the glaring injustices and ongoing conflicts afflicting the world such as human rights, the establishment and recognition of a sovereign Palestinian State and putting an end to the anachronistic embargo on Cuba.
The ice has finally been broken re normalizing US-Cuba relations. The onus is on the US Congress to take the process to its logical next step of ending the embargo in the interests of both countries and their people. Hopefully, a similar bold initiative will be taken by Barack Obama in respect of a free Palestine State in the wake Jordan’s draft resolution setting out a Palestinian timetable for a peace deal with Israel submitted recently to the UN Security Council.
Boldness pays. Our own disavowed political parties would gain tremendously in credibility and in acquiring public support by adopting in line with national expectations bolder steps to overhaul the untenable status quo.
* Published in print edition on 24 December 2014