By: Evelyn Zhang and Lauren Schulsohn
LOS ANGELES — The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Bay of Pigs. Guantanamo Bay. All of these infamous events seem to encapsulate a common sentiment around the topic of U.S.- Cuba relations over the years, one marked by tense relations and cautious diplomacy.
In 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama overcame decades of tension and became the first president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. In Obama’s second term, he made it a priority to change the contentious relationship between the two countries. While Obama understood the human rights differences, he believed that the best way to deal with the dispute and promote freedom was through dialogue and positive actions.
He then set out a plan to develop trade, humanitarian and scientific opportunities. The Obama administration promoted joint medical research, the selling of Cuban medicine in the U.S. and banking for Americans in Cuba. They also wanted to create scholarships for research and build more infrastructure in Cuba.
The administration hoped that easing restrictions and creating new programs would help facilitate a better economic and diplomatic relationship. Though Obama’s actions were not widely applauded by Cuban Americans like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), his arrival in Havana marked a historic beginning to a detente period and the first step to normalizing relations between the two countries.
That, too, however, quickly deteriorated. The past four years under Trump saw rollbacks in Obama’s policy. Former British Ambassador to Cuba Paul Hare told Glimpse from the Globe in an exclusive interview that, “Trump for largely electoral reasons, thought it would be advantageous, so he could win Florida, to say he would reverse Obama’s policies, which he did pretty quickly, despite the main one of keeping full diplomatic relations.”
Notably, Trump also re-designated Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” continuing to choke Cuba’s economy with economic sanctions. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reported the new classifcation of Cuba, and justified the decision by saying that Cuba continually, “[provided]support for the acts of international terrorism in granting state harbor to terrorists.” When this decision was made, the United States only had listed Syria, Iran and North Korea under this categorization. Being classfied as a “state sponsor of terrorism” allows the United States to apply more sanctions, deny foreign aid and restrict the exports of defense materials to the country.
In a tweet, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez condemned the act, and said that “the political opportunism of this action is recognized by anyone with an honest regard for the scourage of terrorism and its victims.” Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy expressed his frustrations with the decision and recognized in a statement that this action will make the relationship between the United States and Cuba even more strained for the Biden administration. As Biden now takes office, there has been talk of continuing Obama’s legacy to normalize relations between the two countries.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, heavily endorsed previous efforts to seek improved relations with Cuba. Biden’s presidential campaign vowed to reverse Trump’s policy that has “inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.” Already, eighty Democrats in the U.S. House of Representative have encouraged Biden to roll back sanctions on Cuba and allow travel between the two countries to create “a constructive, productive and civil approach toward Cuba and its people,” according to Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive.
Calls for lifting U.S. sanctions on Cuba mainly stem from concern for the Cuban economy. Many describe Cuba as a country lost in time, with its infrastructure and economy unmoving from decades ago. The struggling economy saw its first awakening in 2014 after U.S.-Cuba relations were restored and travel restarted to enliven the tourism market. However, these changes were quickly undermined by rollbacks of the Trump presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, Cuba’s economy shrank by 11%, setting a three-decade record of decline. Broadly speaking, the Cuban economy last peaked in 1984 and plummeted in the 1990s, erasing almost a third of its entire economy. After that, there were meager economic improvements in 2000 when Venezuela supplied oil at discounted prices, but since the 2008 financial crisis, Cuba never truly recovered.
Now, the dire state of its economy is taking a toll on the entire demographic, with its population of 11.2 million shrinking and quickly aging. With Biden’s arrival, many are optimistic about Cuba’s recovery with U.S. aid — but it may still be too early for that. At this stage, Cubans are looking towards strides in opening up travel.
“They will be hoping now that Biden does open travel, which will bring a lot of money into Cuba,” said Paul Hare, former ambassador to Cuba. “It will bring tourism, but also Cuban American travel, which is being reduced from the new restrictions.”
As seen by Cuba’s recent governmental action, better relations seem to be desired by Cuba. Cuba’s inner workings have seen significant changes over the years. After decades of isolationist authoritarian policy under Fidel Castro, in 2009, Fidel’s successor, Raul Castro completely reformed his cabinet. He removed several of Cuba’s highest-ranking officials from their posts and dismounted many loyalists of his brother. The political significance of the removal signaled a notable pivoting point for Cuba, signifying an internal political power and Cuba’s divergence from a long period of isolationist policy.
For the first time in decades, Raul expressed openness to improving relations with the United States. Cuba’s reform has not only been limited to its government but has also been making economic changes to accommodate for the pandemic. The spread of the Coronavirus in Cuba has caused over 65,000 infections and resulted in 387 deaths. While the country was able to keep the mortality rate considerably low, it struggled to keep its economy going and protect its citizens. And the already dwindling economy became even more damaged by a food crisis.
Since 2010, Cubans have only been allowed to work in businesses in 127 private sector categories specified by the government, mostly encapsulating service jobs in the restaurant or transportation industry. In February, the former policy was abolished, legalizing all private sector businesses except for a list of 124 specifically prohibited jobs.
This is a fundamental, historic change that we’ve been asking for for a long time,” said Oniel Diaz Castellnos, an owner of a business Cuban consultancy agency. “There are a lot of businesses that were illegal and now can be legalized, and there’s going to be a lot of innovative ideas that will be unleashed. It’s an economic opportunity not just for entrepreneurs but for the country.”
Biden’s entry into office has increased optimism on the U.S.-Cuba relationship. He has openly voiced intentions to roll back President Trump’s harsh foreign policy and continue engagement with Cuba. “Yes, I would. In large part, I would go back,” Biden said. “I’d still insist they keep the commitments they said they would make when we, in fact, set the policy in place.” The Biden administration’s first priority in Cuba would be to support democracy and human rights in the country. White House Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a press briefing “[we are committed]to making human rights a core pillar of our U.S. policy,” and “to carefully [review]policy decisions made in the prior administration, including the decision to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
However, this is not necessarily a guarantee of close diplomacy. Biden’s arrival may mean improved relations between the United States and Cuba, but as the United States battles with COVID-19, diplomacy with Cuba may not be of the utmost importance. The Biden administration is not in a rush to change Cuba policy, which is currently under review, the White House said.
“The Biden administration clearly has to decide what it’s for and what its policy priorities are,” Hare said. “They’ve got many more pressing issues, and perhaps Venezuela, which is linked with Cuba, is more pressing than actually reformulating a new policy towards Cuba.”