On December 17, 2014, Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States, ending half a century of severed relations. The simultaneously broadcasted announcements hinted at the possibility of a more cooperative chapter in the tumultuous relations between Havana and Washington. However, real engagement might not be as easy as presented, given that the United States has historically subjugated Cuba and continues to treat it as a subordinate nation through some of its policies. While a new language of reconciliation is a first step towards restoring relations, a true change in the dynamics of power will not result from normalization, but rather from US willingness to recognize Cuba as a sovereign nation.
The United States has failed to acknowledge the island’s sovereignty since its establishment as an independent nation. This lack of recognition dates back to the US intervention in 1898—not to the rise of Cuba’s more recent communist regime, as is sometimes understood. The mistreatment of Cuba as a subordinate rather than as an equal power has century-old roots, highlighting the importance of real commitment to an alternative, more horizontal political engagement.
Cuba’s process of independence coincided with the United States’ rise as a world power. Mirroring European colonial politics, the United States saw expansionism as means for strengthening its political capabilities. Taking advantage of the unstable political situation of the remaining Spanish overseas territories (the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba) the United States proceeded to intervene under the claim of supporting local processes of decolonization. As a result, Cuba remained excluded from the final decision for Spain’s surrender of the island through The Treaty of Paris (1898) and the Plan Amendment (1903). The latter granted the United States legal permission to intervene in Cuba if it failed to demonstrate its capability to self-govern, according to the discretion of US powers.
Episodes of US intervention continued throughout the following decades, reaching a climax during the territorial expropriation of the southern tip of the island, Guantanamo Bay, in 1903. Guantanamo remains under US control, and is home to the controversial GTMO detention camp. An enduring US presence has deterred Cuba from taking actions against the continuous human right violations that have come to characterize the camp. Herein, then, remains another reason for advocating for cooperative political engagement between the nations. A more efficient push for the dismantlement of GTMO and the return of the territory to Cuba, seems more feasible under normalized Cuba-US relations.
The unstable post-independence period came to an abrupt end with Fulgencio Batista’s military coup, described by Sumner Welles, US ambassador at the time, as the only man who could hold some sort of authority of the island. Under US support and formal recognition of the new government, Batista inaugurated a dictatorship of fear and oppression, controlling the legislature, the press and Cuba’s main university. Seven years passed before Fidel Castro’s rebel forces toppled the regime and establish socialist Cuba in 1959.
Acknowledging previous historical experience sheds light onto Cuba’s aggressive change in policy towards the United States following the Cuban Revolution. This was the nation’s first attempt to break from its enduring subordination. With the nationalization of all foreign assets and a rise in taxes on US imports, Cuba’s socialist policies truly challenged US-Cuban power dynamics. These measures aimed to develop Cuba’s national economy, particularly reducing dependency, as the island economically relied on sugar exports to the United States.
Set in the context of the Cold War, however, the change in policy easily translated into political hostility. As Cuba received recognition and invitation to trade with the Soviet Union, the United States and this neighboring island consolidated a clear sense of antagonism towards each other. Quickly, increased tensions resulted in a trade embargo and the severing of diplomatic ties with the island. What followed was a period of well-known offenses and defenses, with the famous episodes of the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs and the almost-catastrophic Cuban Missile Crisis.
In spite of officially severed relations and continuous US offensives, interstate conversations over the normalization of relationships took place, even in the most contested periods. Fidel Castro’s government regularly held meetings for negotiation purposes with every president from Kennedy to Clinton. First talks of negotiations date back to Che Guevara’s encounter with Richard Goodwin in Uruguay in 1961: the year of the Bay of Pigs invasion. As a matter of fact, it was only during George W. Bush’s administration that normalization efforts ceased and restrictions intensified.
Obama’s initiative for the reestablishment of diplomatic ties is aligned with the nation’s generational shift in attitudes. Obama was the first Democrat to receive a majority of votes from the Cuban-American community, which had generally voted for the Republican Party, as it promoted the embargo policy. Historically, the Cuban-American community in Florida was one the main supporters of the embargo because it perceived imposed economic isolation as an effective policy against the political regime they have fled from. Post-Cold War generations, however, see the embargo as anachronistic and counterproductive. In this sense, Obama’s normalization might as well be explained in terms of local politics, as opposed to international relations with Cuba.
The question remaining is whether the US government is willing to truly recognize Cuba’s capacity for self-governance without intervening in the island’s politics. Recent efforts for normalization have promised the opening of an US embassy in Cuba and the loosening of travel restrictions, but have not guaranteed the lifting of the embargo, which would require congressional approval. Moreover, the fact is that Cuba remains on the list of state sponsors of terrorism and that the United States still maintains the Guantanamo territory questions whether the normalization of relations has really ended US hostility towards the island nation. True political engagement and horizontal dialogue cannot be promoted without first reversing these remaining policies. Regardless of political differences, the United States has no right to challenge domestic Cuban politics, even under the guise of spreading democracy. Obama is indeed apt to reverse a century-old trend of political hostility towards the island nation. And while these recent steps towards normalization are significant, there is much more to be done.