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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Explained: the French Parliamentary Elections

On Sunday, the French public once again went to the polls, this time to vote in the first round of the parliamentary elections. The initial results have put the political party of President Emmanuel Macron, La République en Marche, firmly in the lead, and it is expected to win up to 445 seats in the National Assembly. However, instead of writing in even more confusing terms I’m going to use this post to explain how France elects its politicians, and what the recent results mean for French politics.

First of all, I’d like to talk about the French political system (please bear with me!). Much like the House of Commons in the UK, the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) is the lower house of the government. It is here where laws are debated, amended and voted upon, making it an essential part of the law-making process. The Assembly has 577 seats which are filled by MPs (députés) who are chosen in the parliamentary elections. After the presidential elections (which are held roughly one month before), the President needs to gain a majority in the Assembly (289 seats) so that their party can pass laws. It is for this reason why the parliamentary elections are so important. As with voting in the presidential elections it is held over two rounds, with the first aiming to eliminate the candidates with the least support.  The two with the highest number of votes then proceed to the second round, and the candidate with the highest vote percentage is the winner. Elections are held in all 577 constituencies (circonscriptions) across France, including 27 in the overseas territories and 11 for French residents abroad. In the parliamentary elections this year a total of 7,882 candidates are standing; 42% of them are women, potentially a new record for female representation in the Assembly. They will be voted in by the 46.9 million people registered to vote, 716,000 of whom are first-time voters.

Following his election as President in May, Emmanuel Macron needs to get as many of his party members elected as possible to give him enough political power to carry out his agenda. His party, La République en Marche! (The Republic on the Move!) was only formed in April 2016 and as a result currently has no seats in the National Assembly. However, as mentioned his party is expected to win an historic 445 seats, giving them a significant majority. Many of the party’s candidates were selected in the weeks after Macron’s victory, with several having interesting backstories. Marie Sara is a retired bullfighter, for example, and Hervé Berville a Rwandan refugee. Although many of the party’s candidates lack political experience, this could in fact play to their advantage with an electorate fed up of mainstream politicians. The newness of La République en Marche! is seen as a clean break from the politics of the past, with Macron the figurehead of this new political movement.

These parliamentary elections will significantly transform French politics. If estimates are correct, the success of Macron’s party will be the biggest change to the National Assembly since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle brought in the Fifth Republic. The Socialists, who previously governed France under François Hollande, are set to lose up to 200 seats, a staggering loss for a party that has long been at the centre of the political system. On the other hand, the elections have highlighted a growing problem – turnout. In the first round it was 48.7%, compared to 57.2% in 2012. The reason for this has been suggested to be a lack of interest in the voting process, as well as a feeling of resignation among many of Macron’s rivals. His projected victory also puts the system itself into question. With an absolute majority in the Assembly many have warned that there would be no effective opposition to Macron, weakening the political process. This would be a step back for French democracy.

Voters go to the polls for the second round of the parliamentary elections next Sunday (18th), when we’ll know for sure just how successful Macron has been and what it means for la démocratie française.

Further Reading:

How do the elections work?

The winners and losers

A History of the Great British General Election!

Today, people from across the UK are voting in the 2017 general election. What makes this election unique is the fact that it’s occurring only two years after the last one, a result of the snap election called in April by British Prime Minister Theresa May. 650 MPs will be elected to the House of Commons, with about 46.9 million people registered to vote. Recent elections are a world apart from those held when they first began, and today’s events have inspired me to explore the history of the general election and how it has changed over the years.

The first elections for the parliament of the United Kingdom were held on 22nd July 1802. Before this date, elections took place for two separate parliaments, those of Great Britain and Ireland. It’s worth noting several key aspects of the electoral process in the early 19th century; for example, universal suffrage was far from achieved, with women prohibited from voting. Men were restricted too, with only those owning a certain type of property being able to vote. The voting period was also much longer than the twenty-four hours we are accustomed to today, with the 1802 election lasting nearly two months! Parliamentary terms were longer too, allowing for up to seven years. Furthermore, the concept of a parliamentary majority was unheard of, allowing the Tory party to unfairly hold onto power until the system was reformed in 1832.

Of course, the general election process underwent numerous modifications after 1802. The Reform Act 1832 extended voting rights to 1 in 7 adult males. The Representation of the People Act 1884 was the culmination of this reform, increasing the electorate to 5.5 million men. 20th century reform brought about even greater changes, with the Parliament Act 1911 reducing the parliamentary term from seven years to the five years we know today. Following on from this, the Representation of the People Act 1918 granted suffrage to women, as well as increasing the number of men who could vote; all men over 21 and women over 30 could now have their say in general elections. Additional legislation in 1928 extended this right to the entire adult population over 21. The minimum voting age was lowered to 18 years of age in 1969 under the Labour party. The most recent major reform came in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, which ruled that general elections must be held every five years with no exceptions.

There are also several aspects of general elections which seem normal today yet weren’t always so. The proportion of the population who take part, known as the turnout, was only measured from 1918. This was also the year in which postal and proxy voting were first introduced, although it was intended only for members of the armed forces still serving overseas. Media coverage of the vote is today seen as a natural part of the political process, yet the BBC only aired its first television programme covering a general election in 1950.

I hope this article has provided a greater insight into the history of the general election in the UK. The numerous reforms show how lucky we are to have the ability to vote today, so I urge you to use your democratic right and have your say in all elections to come!