Why Did US Policy Towards Cuba Change? A View From Havana

Before December 17, 2014, it was a natural question why the US did not change its isolation policy against Cuba in light of its ostensible failure. That day, President Barack Obama acknowledged this fact, in a demonstration of political courage never achieved by those among his predecessors who had intended to make a significant change in the relationship between the two neighboring countries. Although central components of the policy of economic blockade and political subversion against Cuba remain in place, the announced resumption of diplomatic relations between the two governments is very positive because it will certainly allow a civilized interaction that could lead to new and more comprehensive understandings on key issues of the bilateral agenda, in order to establish a fully normalized relation of mutual respect, despite the predictable hindering actions of certain retrograde and recalcitrant forces.

In a consideration of the chances of success of the normalization process already underway, it becomes especially relevant to assess the US government’s possible motivations, since the Cuban one had for many years made clear its interest in improving the bilateral relation, provided that occurred under conditions of full respect for Cuba’s sovereignty in conformity with international law. Therefore, the question arises about what led the US government to agree to the resumption of diplomatic relations precisely at this moment, a question which does not admit simple answers, but should lead to reflection about a group of elements.

The most obvious of these is the resilience shown by the Cuban people and the strength of their political leaders for 56 years which have allowed the Caribbean country to develop a principled and global oriented foreign policy, with an internationalist vocation, which has also been intelligently and successfully adjusted to the changing conditions of the international system, achieving very impressive results well above what would have been expected from the simple consideration of the hard power resources available to Cuba – always very limited.

However, this alone does not explain the surprising policy change decided by the Obama administration. Additionally, at least four other conditions were necessary to make it possible. We will consider them concisely, without attempting a comprehensive list.

First, a fundamental shift in the world balance of power has taken place with regard to the old international order that emerged after the end of World War II. According to the latest data from the International Monetary Fund, when measured according to the purchasing power of their respective national currencies, China has already surpassed the US as the country with the biggest economy. This does not mean that the US does not remain the world’s sole superpower, since internationally there is still no effective counterweight to its overall superiority resulting from the combination of US military, political, ideological, economic, scientific, technological and cultural resources. However, it is becoming more evident that the US can no longer impose its will in the world as it formerly did. The National Security Strategy published in 2010 very clearly ratified the hegemonic vocation of the US to the extent that, in a 60-page document, the term “leadership” (or derivatives thereof) is euphemistically used 71 times, in reference to the role the US would inevitably and providentially play in the world for the centuries to come (cf. The White House: National Security Strategy, Washington, DC, 2010). However, if the US seriously aspires to preserve any such leadership, it will have to pay increasing attention to its image and the international perceptions resulting from US behavior in the world. The US obsession with imposing “regime change” and with punishing a small, although internationally well recognized neighbor country, combined with the practically unanimous rejection of the policy of economic blockade, repeated every year in the United Nations General Assembly did not create a positive image of the US.

Secondly, Latin American and Caribbean countries have also changed a lot and for good. With governments of varied political and ideological profiles and social movements with much greater mobilization capacity, this geographic region today is the scene of multiple cooperation and integration efforts involving the assertion of greater autonomy and defense of its own interests and the avoidance of unjustified external alignments and the rejection of subservient positions in the relations with great powers that prevailed in the past. Since the seventies of the last century, and joining Mexico, several Latin American and Caribbean countries began a process of normalizing relations with Cuba and welcoming it back into the mechanisms of consultation and regional cooperation, which accelerated and deepened dramatically in the new cycle of inter-American relations started in December 1998 with Hugo Chavez’s first electoral victory in Venezuela. The return of Cuba to multilateral processes in the region was crowned with an unanimous Latin American and Caribbean rejection of the US policy of economic blockade and hostility against the island nation, accompanied by a collective demand for its participation in the Hemisphere’s Summits of Heads of State and Government, from which it had routinely been excluded since its first edition in 1994 in the city of Miami.

Third, the US has also changed. The first election of an Afro-American president was a truly extraordinary event, whose meaning is not limited to symbolic aspects or to the complex racial issue in that country, since it has also to do with deeper sociopolitical processes developing within it. As part of that, and albeit with great difficulty, some forces and voices inside the US ruling class are increasingly advocating for a more realistic foreign policy that meets the true vital interests and resources of the country, as well as acknowledges the increasing external constraints it will have to face as a result of the emergence of new power centers in the world. This emerging trend has even had an expression, although in a contradictory manner, in the political thought of President Obama – to the extent it can be discerned from the analysis of his speeches and statements – and that of some of the most prominent members of his cabinet, such as Secretary of State John Kerry and outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. This is so despite the fact that the Obama administration has continued and even broadened the scope of some of the most reprehensible policies established by its predecessor – such as the summary and extrajudicial executions by drone attacks with countless innocent victims – while at the same time, it has sought to put an end to the practice of torture and the infamous US prison in Guantanamo Bay, located in unduly occupied territory of Cuba.

Finally, and by no means a less important factor than those above mentioned, Cuba has also changed and continues to change. It can be said that the economy has historically been the major unresolved subject of the Cuban revolutionary process, a situation largely – albeit not exclusively – determined by the prolonged and comprehensive economic and financial blockade imposed by the US against the country. Therefore, it is no coincidence that economic issues have occupied the Cuban authorities’ center of attention over the last decade. The ongoing reform process seeks to place the economy on a level of efficiency that would meet the needs of its population and sustain the tremendous achievements in social justice, expressed mainly in the universal and free access to health and education, a reality for Cubans, but a dream for billions of people around the world. Moreover, the reform of the migratory policy, in force since 2013, and the new foreign investment law passed last year, also have had an undeniable impact on the creation of a more favorable situation around Cuba, enhancing its privileged geographical position and the possibilities to intensify joint projects and associations with foreign partners.

In short, with the policy of economic blockade and political subversion against Cuba, the US has only harmed its own interests by damaging its international image, keeping an irritant and divisive element in their relations with Latin America and the Caribbean and banning and excluding themselves from the economic opportunities opened by the current process of change in Cuba. And although such opportunities might seem small in absolute terms for a country the size of the US, their relative value is increased with the continuous shaping of a much more competitive global environment. For all these reasons and certainly some others, the Obama administration, in a realistic and intelligent decision, opted for the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

This article contains the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the institution to which he belongs.