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Washington’s Slow-Motion Thaw

“I reported on the imminent normalization of US relations with Cuba 20 years ago.”

Pottery shop in Cienfuegos, Cuba. (Photo: Rene Bastiaanssen)

The strangest part of seeing the Cuban embargo officially deemed past its use-by date is how long this took.

I first traveled to Cuba in 1995, after convincing my editor that it would become a huge business story once President Bill Clinton normalized relations. Like many journalists at that time, we believed that would happen any minute.

With a vague mandate to report on Cuba’s scruffy tourism industry and nascent business activities, I flew to Havana on a three-week assignment.

You see, Cuba was finally letting people openly exchange dollars for pesos. And there were shiny new stores selling Toblerone chocolate and the kinds of luxuries you’d find in duty-free shops.

Cubans could also operate little eateries in their living rooms and patios called paladares, as long as they had no more than 12 chairs. And they could own microenterprises — if they didn’t employ anyone not related them.

Overall, there just wasn’t much local business to report.

I interviewed a guy who fixed old electric fans. The newer Russian models were worse than the older U.S.-made ones that predated the 1959 revolution, so he had lots of customers.

The fan man epitomized how resourceful Cubans had become thanks to America’s chokehold over Cuba’s trade with most of the world. He experienced the limits of Cuba’s newfound economic freedom when the authorities busted him for trying to get a small chain of Mr. Fix-It stalls going at multiple locations.

So no, the country’s full potential wasn’t being unleashed six years after the Soviet bloc’s collapse gutted the Cuban economy and cut off its oil imports. To a large degree, these small compromises with the government’s economic control were meant for U.S. consumption.

Ultimately, they didn’t sway Bill Clinton. Instead of normalizing relations, he punished Cuba for shooting down planes flown by the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue.

George W. Bush wasn’t interested in thawing this Cold War holdout either. When his wars pushed oil prices skyward, Cuba found that its alliance with the progressive petro-state of Venezuela — coupled with the steady flow of Canadian, European, and South American tourists — made life a little more tolerable again.

As Cubans patiently say when anything malfunctions, whether it’s a leaky faucet or the national economy, “se resuelve.” It gets fixed.

Until mid-December, President Barack Obama seemed to have better things to do, like fight over health care, climate, and immigration with Congress. During his first year in office, the question of whether he would show “some spine,” as my late friend Saul Landau put it, and neuter the embargo sounded like a subtle joke.

Aside from whatever may have strengthened Obama’s vertebrae lately (check out what he’s said about Net Neutrality and what he did for undocumented immigrants), other factors finally intervened.

It started when Fidel Castro handed off power to his more pragmatic and less charismatic younger brother, Raul. Paladar owners were allowed up to 50 chairs. Pope Francis worked his magic. Polls showed that two out of three Cuban Americans support normalizing diplomatic relations with their homeland.

And for the second time in a generation, Cuba found itself on the brink of losing its primary benefactor.

Caracas has long sent Cuba about 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day, with Cuba returning the favor by sending thousands of its people to Venezuela to work as doctors, sports trainers, teachers, and military advisers.

Se resuelve, right? For a while, yes. But now, plunging oil prices are crashing Venezuela’s economy.

So will Uncle Sam become Cuba’s best friend again? Experts say no one should bank on an immediate boom in U.S.-Cuban business transactions. They’ve got a good point.

As recent history makes it clear, there’s no reason to expect our leaders to rush this.

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