The ‘Cuban Thaw’ at risk? A history of US-Cuba relations

At a speech in Miami on Friday, US President Donald Trump announced his plans to roll back policy changes made by his predecessor Barack Obama with regards to Cuba. Describing the current situation as a “completely one-sided deal”, he intends to reinstate certain travel and trade restrictions. However, several key aspects of Obama’s Cuba policy will remain, such as the reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington. This latest turn in US-Cuba relations has encouraged me to look into the history of the two countries and whether the current situation will change under the Trump presidency.

First of all, the island of Cuba has not always been a communist state. American victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898 led to the Treaty of Paris, in which Cuba became a US protectorate. American influence continued even after its formal independence in 1902, dominating Cuban politics and the economy. This continued until the 1950s, when the Cuban Revolution (1953-59) transformed the island forever. In 1959, the authoritarian Batista regime was overthrown by Fidel Castro and his communist forces. Cuba immediately became a direct threat to the USA, a communist stronghold only 103 miles from the US mainland. This led to rapidly deteriorating relations and a US policy which actively pursued a trade embargo with Cuba. The first embargo came in 1958, restricting the sale of arms to Cuba, and was followed in 1960 with an embargo on all exports except for food and medicine. In 1962 the embargo was further extended to nearly all imports and prohibited US companies from doing business with Cuba. The main reason given by the US administration for these restrictions is the refusal of the Cuban government to move towards democracy, as well as the abuse of human rights. Only once has el bloqueo (as it is known in Cuba) become a literal embargo; during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the American navy blocked all incoming ships from reaching Cuba in an attempt to persuade the Soviets to back down. Since the end of the crisis, the embargo has continued mostly along the same lines, making it the longest trade embargo in modern history.

The historic meeting between Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in March 2016. Obama was the first US President to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

The first significant breakthrough in US-Cuba relations came as a result of the Obama administration. Known as the ‘Cuban Thaw’, since 2014 there has been a warming of relations after secret negotiations were held between the two countries. A normalisation agreement led to the lifting of some US travel restrictions and fewer limits on US access to the Cuban economy. Most importantly, the US and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington were reopened in July 2015, and Cuba was removed from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list. This signalled the start of a closer relationship between the two countries, and in August last year US commercial flights arrived in Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years, once more allowing many Americans to travel to Cuba. Unfortunately, this détente may not last long. Donald Trump’s announcement on Friday seeks to re-impose harsher embargo measures and tear down the successes of the Obama era. However, despite saying he would be “cancelling” Obama’s Cuba policy, he has left in place several of its most important successes. The US embassy will remain open in Havana, commercial flights will continue and US citizens will still be able to bring home a variety of Cuban goods. This suggests that although Trump’s actions will have some effect they are unlikely to signal a return to the embargo situation which prevailed until the thaw in 2014.

US-Cuba relations have come a long way since the open hostility of the 1960s, and it would be a tragedy to see this threatened by the Trump administration. If the benefits of the thaw continue to increase, such as the 600,000 US citizens who were able to visit Cuba last year, it will become more difficult for Trump to push through tougher measures.

Further Reading:

More information on the ‘Cuban Thaw’

Opinion piece on why the US embargo on Cuba has been ineffective


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