Cuba and the U.S.: Turning the Page
Cuba and the U.S.: Turning the Page
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 7 minutes

Cuba and the U.S.: Turning the Page

In the three posts below, the director of Crisis Group’s Latin America and Caribbean program, Javier Ciurlizza, and our vice president and special adviser on Latin America, Mark Schneider, look ahead to how the U.S. and Cuban moves could transform the wider region.

The dramatic improvement this week in U.S.-Cuban relations, and the possibility of an end to the decades-long U.S. embargo of the island, is set to transform political relations in the entire hemisphere.

Ending the “Hemispheric Anomaly”

The announcements made by presidents Obama and Castro were enthusiastically welcomed across Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, and in at least some quarters of Venezuela. Although there is a great deal to be done before any true normalisation of relations between the two countries, the announcements do at least represent the end of 60 years of Cuba as a “hemispheric anomaly”.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba, in place since 1961, was only the most explicit of several sanctions and decisions that effectively isolated Cuba from the rest of the continent. Expelled from the Organisation of American States (OAS) and excluded from summits, the Caribbean nation was caught up more than most in the maneuverings of the Cold War’s protagonists. Latin American countries aligned themselves with the United States during the 1960s and ’70s. In the 1980s they started to move toward a growing solidarity with their secluded neighbour.

In the past 20 years, a period marked by both a return to democracy and, in many Latin American countries, a marked shift to the left, the Cuba question was no longer taboo. It was continually pushed onto the regional political agenda even by nations ideologically distant from Havana. In fact, rejection of the embargo was one of the few things on which politicians, from the Rio Grande to Patagonia, could agree.

The embargo gradually came to isolate the U.S. as well as Cuba. The aggressive enforcement of Cuba sanctions on other Latin American countries trading with the island fanned resentment. It also distorted regional foreign relations. Some measured the friendship between nations according to the strength of their respective positions on the embargo. Others got caught up in an anti-imperialist discourse that undermined regional solidarity the more it insisted on it. The Cuba question sowed suspicion and raised temperatures when they needed lowering.

Normalisation of relations, then, is not just something for the U.S. and Cuba to carry out, it’s for the entire continent. Cuba will doubtless finally attend an Americas Summit – set for April in Panama – as suggested by President Obama, and its return to full membership in the Organisation of American States will be forcefully requested at the next OAS general assembly in Asunción, Paraguay, this coming June.

Cuba has worked for this normalisation, for example with its efforts, cited by Obama, to help combat Ebola. But I would say that two unacknowledged reasons were probably more important: what Cuba is doing for Colombia and what it can do for Venezuela.

The Colombia peace process, which is taking place thanks to the Castro brothers’ hospitality, would not have made the progress it has without close Cuban involvement, including in a recent and delicate hostage negotiation and in the strong (though implicit) message from Havana that the time really has come to end the last major armed conflict in the hemisphere. President Santos has not been shy about praising Cuba, whose continued participation in the process is the main external guarantor of a successful outcome.

In the case of Venezuela, Cuban pressure to reach a peaceful settlement to the political crisis may prove to be key. Cuba has now received the signal it needed from the U.S. that it will no longer be entirely dependent for its energy needs on Venezuela’s state-owned petroleum company and the chavista government’s Petro Caribe support program.

The presence and active participation of Cuba in hemispheric institutions can only be a good thing. However, the region should not abandon its commitments to democracy and human rights; here Cubans need to demonstrate they are willing to purchase the full meal and not just the dessert. Restoration of Cuba’s full participation in the international human-rights treaty system, and a prompt visit by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, should accompany the release already of more than 50 political prisoners. Such further demonstrations of intent will enable us to continue celebrating this very good news.

-Javier Ciurlizza

The New Normal

The absence of normal relations between Washington and Havana has been the Cold War’s last vestige in the Americas. President Obama’s announcement that he spoke last week with Raul Castro, after 18 months of secret negotiations, to seal the deal to normalize diplomatic relations means the 21st century has arrived for U.S. relations in the hemisphere.

The announcement that more than 50 political prisoners would be released with the choice of staying in Cuba or leaving the country, that the ICRC and UN human rights rapporteurs would be allowed back in, and that the Cuban people would have greatly expanded access to the internet also signals, more forcefully than rhetoric, that human rights and democracy remain high on the U.S. agenda.

While conservative voices in both U.S. political parties quickly and sharply criticized Obama’s decision, the reality is that a majority of Americans, in poll after poll, have supported normalizing relations with Cuba. The percentage in Florida, as young Cuban-Americans outnumber their parents’ generation, is even higher. For agricultural producers in both countries, and for small businesses recently given greater space by Cuban economic reforms, an easing of restrictions will likely draw bi-partisan support.

The direct legislative constraints on Cuban trade with the U.S. are unlikely to be removed anytime soon and Congressional opposition may well delay approval of an ambassador. But the senior State Department official currently heading the mission there, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, already has the personal title of ambassador, having served as deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN.

Once the legally required six-month review of another vestigial issue – Cuba’s designation, since 1982, as a country supporting terrorism – is completed, it is virtually certain that the president will remove Cuba from that list. The fact is that Cuba already cooperates with Canada, Europe and the UN on counterterrorism. President Obama’s announcement that he will attend the spring Summit of the Americas in Panama – to which Raul Castro already has accepted his first Summit invitation – heralds a strengthening of the summit process.

For the United States, this announcement had an added benefit: it ended U.S. isolation from every Latin American and Caribbean nation regarding the embargo. While perhaps not the highest priority item on the foreign policy agenda of most Latin American and Caribbean nations, the embargo was an irritant and made it more difficult to cooperate with the U.S. on other hemispheric and international concerns.

Finally, Cuba has long been one of the two Latin American countries – the other being Brazil – whose voices are heard clearly in Caracas. The decision yesterday could lead both countries to press Venezuela to begin a process of real accommodation with the opposition to avoid a disastrous civil conflict there. This announcement could, if everyone follows through on its promise, mean a new beginning for U.S.-Latin American relations.

-Mark Schneider

Venezuela’s Cuba problem

Cuba is Venezuela’s closest ally. It not only receives multi-billion-dollar subsidies, including around 100,000 barrels a day of crude oil and derivatives at concessionary prices, but its political cadres and military and intelligence officers are present at the highest levels of the Venezuelan regime. The subsidies are presented to the Venezuelan public as compensation for Cuban solidarity in providing doctors, teachers and sports instructors who participate in social missions aimed at helping the poor and excluded. Yet as celebrated as this fraternal bond is by the Venezuelan government, President Nicolás Maduro appears to have learned of the rapprochement between Havana and Washington only via the media.

Maduro, who was attending a Mercosur summit when the news broke, had earlier blasted “insolent” U.S. sanctions legislation aimed at alleged human-rights violators in his government. His tone softened markedly after the U.S.-Cuba agreement was announced. Not only did he praise President Obama’s “brave gesture”, he referred to the United States as “the giant of the north” rather than using the standard revolutionary epithet, “the empire”. Later, he indicated that Venezuela was committed to seeking better relations with Washington, whereas not long before he had admitted to feeling “tempted to break relations”.

The Maduro government faces a dilemma. Anti-imperialism is part of the glue that binds the heterogeneous chavista revolution together. But it can ill-afford to pursue a confrontational course with the United States at a time when tumbling oil prices have turned an already dire economic situation into a potential catastrophe. The Cubans, it seems, have been negotiating with Washington ever since Maduro came to power after Hugo Chávez’s death last year. Havana is well aware that, as the Venezuelan economy slides deeper into recession, subsidised oil for the neighbours – however revolutionary – becomes less and less viable both politically and economically. But détente between Havana and Washington threatens to deprive Maduro of the external enemy he needs to rally his supporters.

Worse still, the fact that Raúl Castro seems to have kept his ally in the dark about the negotiations will undoubtedly cause fresh strains among the various chavista factions. For many in the military in particular, the presence of Cuban personnel in the barracks with authority over their Venezuelan counterparts has long been a source of considerable discontent. Now that it appears the sharing of intelligence is a one-way street, that anger may deepen, just as the president’s loss of overall support is raising questions about the loyalty of the armed forces.

Closer relations between Cuba and the United States could potentially have a more positive impact on Venezuela, however. The refusal thus far of the Maduro government to embark on economic reform or engage in genuine dialogue with the opposition has in part been due to the perception that it has the support of its neighbours. Ironic though it may seem, Cuba is one of the few countries with enough influence in Caracas to nudge Venezuela in a more pragmatic direction. The ball is in Cuba’s court.

But it is also in the United States’ court. Unilateral sanctions against Cuba have come under fire from the same administration which recently approved measures – admittedly much less drastic – against Venezuelan officials allegedly involved in human rights violations. Now that debate and agreement seem to be possible even between Washington and Havana, all parties should take the cue to use dialogue as the main tool for the avoidance of violent confrontation in Venezuela.

-Javier Ciurlizza


Former Program Director, Latin America
Former Senior Adviser

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