The Obama Administration in December of 2014 announced it intended to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, after months of secret talks, to the surprise of everyone. Given the Cold War ended nearly three decades ago, the US has had a working relationship with Russia since then, and we live in a dynamic world that continually forces the United States to overcome serious rifts with other nations, easing the nearly 55 year-old Cuban Embargo and restarting US-Cuban relations seemed like a seriously overdue policy change. There was, however, still the Castro issue. That is until the world learned of Fidel Castro’s death on November, 26 2016.
Recognizing the United Nations recently undertook its annual vote to condemn the US embargo of Cuba in late October, it is clear that the world wants the United States to improve relations with Cuba. To boot, a revival in Cuban-American relations is seen as a symbolic and necessary part of reengaging Latin and South America, where the world’s fiercest critics of the Cuban Embargo and the United States reside. In a broader context, mending fences with Communist Cuba may help the US dispel a perception that America is a hypocritical bully of weaker nations that do not conform to its whims, which will, in turn, help the US combat Russian and other anti-American PR. There is, however, now the issue of Donald Trump.
As United States transitions from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration, there is a great deal of uncertainty. In the case of Cuba, Donald Trump’s pledge to undo key parts of President Obama’s legacy, including Obama’s unilateral diplomatic reengagement with the Cuban government, and Trump’s plans to broadly renegotiate how the US engages the world suggests a refreeze. Despite Trump’s reluctance to build on Obama’s diplomatic reset with Cuba, the death of Fidel Castro creates an opportunity that the US President should not ignore. With the death of Fidel Castro, any justification for cutting renewed ties with Cuba and sustaining the Cuban Embargo has been significantly weakened.
Today, America’s issues with Cuba have less to do with national security, as well as ideology, and more to do with human rights violations while Cuba has less political baggage than human-rights- violator and state-sponsor-of-terrorism Iran, especially as the mentality of Cold War era Americans die out. Although there was great hope in 2008 when Fidel’s transferred power to his younger, more reform-minded brother Raul would mean major policy and political shifts within Cuba, such changes have been extremely slow to material. Fidel’s death, however, means his influence over the Cuban government is finally no more. In all likelihood, Raul Castro may soon die along with the rest of Fidel’s comrade. This means a new generation of leadership will soon seize control over Cuba, which means the US must reposition itself to play a constructive role.
By offering Cuba a number of major rewards, including a new US embassy, Obama was likely moving too fast and needed to slow the reconciliation process for the sake of the Cuban People and the process. Trump should, therefore, build on the reconciliation process by responding to the inevitable changes that are slowly unfolding, instead of pushing for change. Looking to the slow transition of Myanmar (Burma) from oppressive military rule to democracy, the US helped by rewarding Myanmar with an easing of sanctions and the normalization of diplomatic ties.
Certainly, there was a great criticism when the US decided to reset relations with Myanmar, especially since the policy shift occurred soon after a series of brutal crackdown starting with the 2007 Saffron Revolution, but a plan that offered rewards for steps taken toward reform did materialize into significant changes. Unfortunately, there are still major concerns in Myanmar over military interference in the political system and flagrant human rights violations. Like Myanmar, this means Cuba must be offered a framework that provides specific rewards for specific steps taken while consequences must be applied when both nations regress, which is still missing in the case of Myanmar.
Transitioning from a dictatorship where government simply makes and carries out decisions to a freer society where government must give its population the power to reject its decisions is very difficult. It is, therefore, important to remember that every opportunity has a chance at failure while no opportunity should be wasted for fear of failure. Given numerous Democrats and Republicans were united in their criticism of Obama’s Cuba policy, it was nearly impossible for the Obama Administration to fully normalize US-Cuban relations and lift the Cuban Embargo. With Fidel’s death and the election of a new US President, it could happen within Trump’s first term as long as the Cuban government demonstrates it is truly on a sustained path toward fundamental changes that serve the Cuban People.
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