U.S.-Cuba Relations: It’s All About Momentum
April 14, 2015
Today (April 14), President Obama announced that Cuba would no longer be listed among state sponsors of terrorism. Perhaps the biggest change since the two countries announced their normalization process last December, this move is momentous—both in substance and in symbolism.
Commercially, this announcement is huge. U.S. businesses and financial institutions will be freer than ever to do business in Cuba (though still constrained by the embargo). Without the sponsor-of-terrorism designation, Cuba becomes a less risky forum for trade, investment, and engagement. Facing less exposure, businesses, banks, and investors are all the more likely to engage with their Cuban counterparts.
And the policy implications may be still greater than the commercial ones.
First and foremost, removing this designation, while a significant step of its own, allows for many more steps to follow. On the Cuban side, the terrorist list was seen as a major obstacle to future cooperation and confidence building. With it removed, the two countries can continue down their path of rapprochement.
For Washington, today’s change has a more tangible implication: the embargo cannot legally be lifted until Havana’s state sponsor of terror designation is removed. With Cuba off the list, the field is wide open for shots at the embargo—whether little by little or in full. Given Havana’s—and the rest of Latin America’s—focus on lifting the embargo as the end-all of U.S.-Cuba normalization, this change will be well received by our regional neighbors.
But perhaps most importantly, this decision is the biggest signal yet that Washington no longer sees Havana as an enemy—and, in kind, no longer sees value in the island’s status as a global pariah, instead including Cuba in the global community of nations. Taking Cuba off the list provides a sort of recognition—an acknowledgement that, however different Havana and Washington may be, those difference do not amount to justification for total isolation.
So—this is significant progress. But that isn’t to say that the bilateral relationship is out of the woods.
On one hand, the embargo remains in place. Removing it requires legislative action, which we’re unlikely to see in the short term. But while in effect, the embargo will continue to weigh on the normalization process.
On the other hand, Cuba continues to face challenges to human rights protections—an issue central to U.S. engagement with the island. The need for tangible change in the realms of democracy and freedom of expression remains a real sticking point.
And this is where President Obama’s Cuba policy has taken the most hits—largely from those that advocate concessions on human rights and democracy from Cuba as a precondition to U.S. reform toward the island. But ultimately, it is engagement—not isolation—that has the greatest potential to affect real change on these issues so central to U.S. priorities.
Even with all of these problems taken into account, though, President Obama’s decision gives the normalization process exactly what it needs: momentum.
December 17 saw Alan Gross’s return to U.S. soil and the formal announcement of the normalization process between the two countries. Within weeks, Washington had released new regulations fundamentally reshaping Americans’ ability to interact and do business with their Cuban counterparts.
The next month saw the development of formal diplomatic dialogues between the two countries. Just last week, Presidents Obama and Castro spoke by phone, shook hands, and discussed issues face-to-face—all before President Castro’s heartfelt remarks at the Summit of the Americas, apologizing to President Obama and declaring an era of newfound bilateral trust and cooperation.
There’s still more to do—the two countries have yet to open embassies or credential ambassadors. The embargo is in place. The new regulations are still in the early stages of implementation. But the train is already moving, and it’s hard to imagine significant backsliding.
The greatest danger normalization faces is that it loses the impressive momentum built since December. A robust bilateral relationship was hard to imagine just six months ago. But as long as the two countries can keep the ball rolling, we may already be well on our way there.
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.